With a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be 3-0 on the season, and perhaps more importantly, 3-0 without Jameis Winston.
Nobody really saw this coming. Even people on the more confident end of the scale saw 2-1 at best in these first three games. Of course, it’s possible the team will finish this hardest three game start in the history of the Super Bowl era at 2-1, but now that we’ve got two we want number three.
How can Tampa Bay get their third win of the season? Easy, really.
1. Spread the ball against the Steelers defense.
This might be the simplest part of the whole thing. Get the ball to as many different receivers as possible. How? Put as many on the field as you can!
Pittsburgh likes to get after the quarterback, this we know. Well, the best way to mitigate this is through chip blocks, extra blockers, and quick strikes.
The great thing about extra blockers is, they can turn in to receivers if you use the right personnel. Even Peyton Barber, who isn’t exactly known for great receiving ability, can become a safe outlet pass if needed against the right defensive call.
Putting players like O.J. Howard in the game both in-line and in move positions will allow the Bucs to gauge which match-ups favor them the best, and exploit them.
2. Step up against role players.
Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the league and everyone knows it. This fact is just one reason Brown is third among NFL wide receivers with eighteen receptions, but has only found the end zone once thus far.
This strategy by opposing defenses has forced Ben Roethlisberger to force the ball to AB at times and to look in the direction of other players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner out of the backfield.
And this is where the Browns and Chiefs made their money against this team. The other players on the team are talented, but none have shown the ability to completely dominate a game the way Brown can.
Smith-Schuster has out-gained Brown 240-yards to 160. Conner is just 55-yards behind the All-Pro. The two have combined for one receiving score.
Roethlisberger likes to play aggressively. When he’s having to force the ball to his star, and isn’t finding scoring opportunities with his role players, he gets even more aggressive and this leads to mistakes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can capitalize on.
Specifically, he’s been bad when throwing on top of defenses. Tight coverage with his receivers has led to Roethlisberger sailing more than a couple passes, and then when he adjusts, he tends to leave the ball short leaving it in prime position for interceptions.
One way Pittsburgh has tried to mitigate this is by using the quick slant and screen passes to force defenses into closer coverage with more receivers to exploit more match-ups. In theory, if the defense fears the quick and short game, they’ll play tighter and more aggressive leaving them vulnerable to pump fakes, double moves, etc. and opening the field for Roethlisberger’s big arm targeting receivers who then have plenty of space to operate.
Solid tackling is a must. The Buccaneers’ defense has struggled at times with angles and tackling. Aggressive play during the release, active hands by pass rushers, and solid tackling will stifle the Steelers’ quick passing game and will relieve some pressure on Tampa Bay’s defensive backs so they don’t over-commit to short passes, leaving them susceptible to deep ones.
3. Get creative, even if you don’t get tricky.
Pittsburgh’s defense is aggressive. I know, you’re surprised. But, this one is also young and not as seasoned as the great ones which came before it.
This will ultimately lead to some flea-flickers, reverse passes, double passes and other trick plays being tried against them throughout the season.
I’m not sure Dirk Koetter will allow one to be tried here, but something the team can do to try and exploit this team’s youthful fire is by running plays out of unconventional formations.
Run out of pass formations, pass out of run formations. It’s not unheard of, but it’s something the Bucs haven’t done much of this season.
On multiple occasions both the Browns and Chiefs ran out of traditionally pass dominant formations. The spreading of the defense and the smaller bodies on the field allowed ball carriers more room to operate and bigger backs like Carlos Hyde and Peyton Barber tend to find more success against smaller defenses.
Granted, the risk is in starting with the ball carrier further behind the line of scrimmage at the exchange, but if the Bucs’ offensive line can open a lane, then Barber would find himself facing a friendlier ratio of linebacker to defensive back in the second and third levels of the defense.
Having two great receiving options like Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard also allows the team to come out in a big set, and still have the option of throwing the ball.
Finally, use tempo to confuse the defense. Pittsburgh’s defense - specifically their secondary - has not been working well as a unit. Calling two plays in the huddle and utilizing a no huddle system from time-to-time will keep them on their heels and confused.
Again, the Steelers like to diagnose the play from the formation and what they see immediately following the snap. Draws, delayed releases, and play-action out of run formations can exploit this tendency. At a minimum, it forces the opposition to read more before reacting, and if it works early then Tampa Bay could find some big opportunities to grab early momentum.
4. Force the issue with James Conner.
Replacing Le’Veon Bell is no small task, but Conner has proved to be serviceable enough. We certainly can’t blame the team’s one and a half losses on him.
He provides a spark to the team with his play style and versatility, and could be the key catalyst to this Steelers offense overcoming the Bell and Brown drama they’ve been afflicted with.
So, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to force the issue. Conner feels most comfortable running between the tackles and has proven to be a solid option leaking out of the backfield as a receiver.
In turn, the Bucs need to collapse the lanes inside with outside run support coming to keep him in there. Easier said than done, I know. But if outside contain defenders allow themselves to get overly aggressive or forced down, then Conner has the vision and ability to get to the edge and turn nothing into something.
Disciplined run defense is going to be step one.
Step two is pass rushing. Getting to the quarterback will force Conner to stay in as a help blocker, and this of course keeps him out of the passing lanes.
The Steelers’ offensive line started soft and only got softer with injuries to David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert, both will be inactive. This puts a lot on the shoulders of Maurkice Pouncey and their back-ups. Something the Bucs defensive front has to take advantage of.
Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David have been blitzing a bit more than usual, and this should keep up. With a soft offensive line going up against the likes of Gerald McCoy, Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul, bringing a blitzing linebacker is sure to force Pittsburgh into a stronger protection strategy. Which means less Conner coming out of the backfield.
5. Exploit known defensive weaknesses.
This isn’t your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers defense. And this isn’t the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense we’re used to. One has weaknesses where there never was, and one has an offense we’ve never seen.
These new developments are good if you’re on the Florida side of things.
Running off-tackle, mostly on the right side of the offense, has been very fruitful up to this point in the season against this defense.
In perhaps Cleveland’s best possession against Pittsburgh in Week 1, the Browns ran the ball nine times for 66-yards and a touchdown. Most of the runs went to perimeter gaps.
Another defensive weakness we’ve seen consistently the first two weeks has come in the name of Cameron Sutton.
Against Cleveland, after Joe Haden tweaked his hamstring, many Steelers focused media decided Sutton’s interception of a Tyrod Taylor lame duck was a sign the young defensive back was suitable to replace the Pro Bowl caliber corner, even if only for a short time.
What they didn’t see - or chose to ignore - was the 38-yard catch by Rishard Higgins and 17-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon. Both targeting Sutton as the coverage player.
Neither was defended well. Early against Kansas City, Sammy Watkins pulled off a 40-yard play against Sutton. Again, not defended well. This led to Sutton, who started the game in place of the injured Haden, playing only 50% of the defensive snaps. Not the start he was looking for, I’m sure.
Sutton is a weakspot until he proves otherwise, and one the Buccaneers would be wise to target if and when he’s on the field. Haden looks to be close to returning fully for Pittsburgh, and if he does then Tampa Bay’s offense needs to test his hamstring early and often.
It’s not about trying to hurt someone, but if he’s coming back just two weeks after leaving a game due to a hamstring pull, it may be too early.
Running hard behind the tackles forces Pittsburgh to play run defense in a manner they have shown to be uncomfortable doing. I like Shaun Wilson hitting the edges a bit to really make them run.
After that, it’s all about match-up management. Sutton is the focal point, but really, anyone but Joe Haden can be exploited if the alignment works out right.
Look for Howard and DeSean Jackson to be on the same side of the field a lot.
This is what I saw, what did you see? How do you think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get to 3-0?