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Film Review Week 3: Steelers at Bucs - Offense

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The one that got away.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sep 24, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) passes the ball during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not that the Bucs could have won this game; they should have. Mental mistakes was the theme of the night; drops, poor throws and decisions, poor game management, leaving defenders unblocked, and poor turnover luck cost them the win. Self-inflicted mistakes. Letting this one get away may be the one that hurts the Buccaneers down the road.

On their very first play from scrimmage, the Bucs are outnumbered in the box but run anyway. Two yards. They would go three-and-out.

Seven blockers, eight defenders in the box.
NFL.com

I can’t for the life of me understand why they continue to do this. When they have numbers and run, they are usually successful. But they have the worst running game in the NFL for a reason. This is one of those reasons.

On the next two plays let’s look at how some Air Raid concepts incorporated this season have helped to open up this offense. Check out the WR splits to the field side at the top of the screen.

DeSean Jackson runs a pick route/slant, and O.J. Howard, just on Jackson’s left hip, runs a quick curl. Jackson doesn’t try to directly pick Howard’s man like one normally would; it would have probably drawn a pass interference flag. The ball is actually a bit late and Howard has to wait on it, but the ball is placed well and he uses his frame to further shield the defender from the ball. It’s a short, quick route that was a bit short of the sticks, but it’s an easy completion and Howard is hard to bring down.

On the very next play, the Bucs come out in this formation:

NFL.com

It’s 12 personnel, with Barber as the running back offset to the weak side of the formation, two tight ends in Howard and Cameron Brate to the strong side, and Jackson and Mike Evans the receivers, each split out wide. 12 personnel is usually a run group (even if we count Howard as a blocker, the Bucs are still outnumbered in the run game). However, the Bucs’ tight ends aren’t like other team’s tight ends, and this is a pass play.

This is a prime example of scheming a receiver open, and works just like a Four Verticals. All four run routes here, but the three to the field side start with relatively tight splits; the only one that actually runs a true vertical route is Brate, who is coincidentally wide open. The tight splits of Howard/Brate/Jackson and the widening of their routes (plus Brate coming from behind Howard’s route as he was lined up in-line) into the middle of the field essentially creates a horizontal stretch on the zone coverage. If the corner comes down on Jackson, Brate only has the safety between him and the end zone. Somewhere down the line if Monken pulls this play out again and the defense is playing zone and he has Jackson run a wheel route with the corner’s back turned, I wouldn’t be mad. The ball is a little high but Fitzpatrick gets it there on time before the corner arrives.

Even if the Steelers had them all covered, because the linebacker to the boundary side bailed to play underneath Evans, Barber is wide open for a checkdown (a hi-lo vertical stretch), and would easily pick up six to eight yards on this first down play, setting up a second and short where the defense would again have to respect the run. Barber’s alignment to that side wasn’t arbitrary and he’s not asked to chip block, which would slow him down. If the linebacker stays down to cover Barber, Evans would be open too.

One thing the Bucs have done a lot of so far this year is put Evans on one side of the formation and most everyone else on the other side. That stresses a defense - either Evans will have one-on-one coverage, or they double him, which leaves someone open on the other side.

Fitzpatrick didn’t see the field particularly well this game. Here is the second example I found just in the first quarter of Fitz locking on to his primary read with other guys wide open. There were a lot more examples throughout the game.

NFL.com

This ball was incomplete to Howard; Fitz basically chose the most difficult throw. Chris Godwin is wide open on a curl, and Jackson is coming open as both defenders at the top of the screen run with Humphries’ fly route. It’s not a huge deal, but there was definitely a little bit of Fitzpatrick pre-determining where he was going with the ball this game. Either that or he’s just more comfortable throwing to his first read.

On the next play everyone is covered and Fitzpatrick is sacked out of field goal range, or close to it. The Steelers did a great job disguising their blitzes all night long and it gave the offensive line a ton of problems. Still, you’d like to see Fitz get rid of the ball. Whatever you do you can’t take a sack on 3rd down in opponent territory.

I haven’t really shown you guys the offensive line a whole lot this year, but there really wasn’t a whole lot to show you since they had been very good. On this play, the Bucs have six blockers for six defenders. But you can see center Ryan Jensen and right guard Caleb Benenoch both think the other one is taking defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and climb up looking for a linebacker.

Heyward is left unblocked, and Barber is cut down by the backside defender. Godwin fumbles on the very next play. Mental mistakes killed this team, and they still almost put up 30 points! I would like to see both Jensen and Benenoch do a double-block on Heyward and then have one of them peel off if they get to a backer. Jensen is just left standing all by himself.

Perhaps one reason why the Bucs will run when outnumbered are plays like this one:

Is it all to set up one-on-one coverage for Mike Evans? Or more accurately, to get defenses to commit an extra defender in the box? The Bucs have seven blockers vs eight defenders in the box, and all seven stay in for max protection. Evans can’t be covered with one defender, who falls down anyway. But on the very next play, the Bucs ran into an outnumbered box again for one yard, and Jensen was called for holding. The Bucs should check to a throw every time in that situation. Why don’t they? Jackson can’t be covered one-on-one either. If the defense is overloading the box that means you have one-on-one coverage somewhere. Throw the dang ball.

Also, note that Humphries’ fly clears out the middle of the field for Evans. In the past, it would just be Evans running his dig all by himself, and the quarterback would have to beat both the corner and the safety with his throw to make the play work. Here, the safety is taken out of the play by the fly and it frees up space for running after the catch. That might be the longest Evans has run after a catch in his NFL career.

Fitzpatrick threw a couple passes into the dirt too, and a small part of me worries about whether his arm can hold up over 16 (and hopefully more) games. Two plays after he dirts one in front of a wide open Howard, he does this:

I don’t know if that’s skill, luck, or a tremendous combination of both. Let’s just say it’s a magic trick, and move on.

Here’s the first interception, right in a stretch of several drives where the Bucs turned the ball over four times:

In some offenses, the quarterback is responsible for setting protections. Winston is very good at it, for example, and I’m almost positive he’s done it in the past. In others, the center is responsible. I honestly don’t know which it is with the Bucs this year. This could be on Fitzpatrick, Jensen, or Dotson. Regardless, the line should have done a slide protection check to the right. Dotson should have gone out and taken the blitzing Jon Bostic off the edge, but instead he’s unblocked and the ball is batted up for an interception.

Turning the ball over this deep in your opponent’s territory can’t happen. If we’re keeping count, that’s at least six points already.

Here’s another Air Raid concept snapshot - look at the wide spacing of the receivers. The Bucs have a 2x3 formation, and both outside receivers (Jackson is at the bottom of the screen) don’t run routes, but stay near the line of scrimmage on “screens” that because of the design of the play don’t have/need blockers. But note they’re also nearly on top of the sideline. This pulls defenses both horizontally and vertically. Someone should be wide open.

NFL.com

But this was incomplete to Humphries who is about to cross the 40-yard line at the bottom of the screen, with a linebacker that has inside leverage, and if it had been a better throw it would have been intercepted.

On the next play he was intercepted, for his second of the game. A lot of people think this interception is Mike Evans’ fault, but I don’t agree. Let’s break it down:

Evans does indeed slow his route. And if this is Y-Cross, Evans is supposed to continue his route diagonally across the field to the other sideline to a depth of about 20 yards or so, and he’s supposed to go behind that linebacker. This play starts on the 45-yard line. That would put him around the 35-yard line. But here’s a snapshot of when Fitzpatrick lets the ball go:

NFL.com

Evans is on the 41-yard line. The interception is caught by the deep safety right at the 29-yard line. Even if Fitzpatrick believed Evans would continue running, at this moment that he’s delivering the ball Evans has clearly already slowed his momentum, and his route is not supposed to gain that amount of depth. There is also no route I’ve ever heard of where you run a cross and then a straight vertical up the field. Even if Evans hadn’t slowed down, his route should take him to the 35, not the 30, and basically closer to the sideline, just a few yards behind where Jackson is in that picture. It is impossible for Evans to teleport ten yards. Also, according to the read progression writing I found on this play, you only throw to the Y (Evans), if the linebacker squeezes the running back. The ‘backer here gained depth right to Evans.

Jackson is running a post route, and makes his break toward the middle of the field at the 30-yard line. I don’t know if Fitzpatrick thought Jackson would break off his route into a dig (generally the only options are a fly or break to a post), but regardless, the end effect is Fitz puts this right in the middle of no-man’s land between the two of them. My guess is it’s just a horrible overthrow meant for Evans. And if you go back up to the gif of the play, you can see the safety catch it on the 29-yard line, and you can see Fitzpatrick points his shoulders right where the ball ends up going, which is no where near Evans.

The next interception on the Bucs’ next drive was the pick-six.

Here’s the end zone view:

It does appear as if his arm gets hit as he throws. While it absolves Fitzpatrick of some of the responsibility for this turnover, it by no means absolves him of all of it like others are claiming. There are several things Fitzpatrick could have or should have done better to avoid such a bad play. That’s one of the responsibilities of playing quarterback.

First, he could have slid to his right, which would have bought him time by helping out his offensive line to re-establish their blocks. But the one that stands out the most to me is that Fitzpatrick in general wants to get the ball out quickly. But here, when you’re executing or being trusted to execute a pass play in this situation, the ball has to come out not just quickly but quickly, and it doesn’t. There is no sense of urgency from him here. In this situation, of all situations, he holds this ball too long.

NFL.com

The ball has to come out right here. Cameron Brate is open with room to run. But he holds the ball for another 1.5 seconds, then as the defense is bearing down on him, tries to lob it to Rodgers and it sails into a pick six. At the moment he threw it he should have just tucked it and eaten the sack for a safety, because by then it was already too late. Go back up to the gif of the play and rewatch it, paying attention to Fitzpatrick and Brate. I like that Fitzpatrick has a steady rhythm to his mechanics, but you have to speed them up here. You could see the same thing on the gif with the Howard curl we looked at earlier. You cannot give up six points to the opponent there. Two points is better than seven. The Steelers went up 23-7.

But here’s an example of what Fitzpatrick can do for you. The exact thing Winston has struggled with; a true vertical route outside the numbers. Monken has done an excellent job scheming big plays without being reliant (much less overly reliant) on this route. It shows up maybe once a game now instead of four or five times a game like it would last season, or the year before that. I also think it’s worth noting that even with a quarterback who can accurately make the throw Monken doesn’t call it but about once a game. Fitzpatrick’s accuracy here is excellent and he drops it in the bucket just before the safety could get there to disrupt the catch.

Two plays later, this happened:

Fitzpatrick bails the pocket early a second too early, and he had Humphries wide open going back across the formation the other way. But he never looks that way and it ends up incomplete. If he had seen Humphries he could have bought himself more time to make the throw.

I understand he left because of the defender, but by bailing the pocket he actually helped negate the cut block by the running back. If he runs the other way the defender has to climb over the running back or, if the defender still does his spin, would have to turn back around again because his back would be facing where Fitzpatrick would be going. The cut block also could have been better.

On the next play Godwin inexplicably dropped a touchdown, and the Bucs settled for three. Four more points left on the field. I’m not worried about Godwin long term, but it definitely was an up-and-down night for him.

If we’re counting, that’s at least ten points left on the field in the first half plus at least five they gifted the Steelers. Plus whatever they lost by turning the ball over so much. That’s where they lost this game.

In the second half, with the Bucs down 30-10, they went to five-wide formations a lot, more pure Air Raid stuff, and the protection suffered a bit for it as they didn’t get as much help as they did before. They did it some in the first half too, and a big part of the gameplan included heavy run formations they both ran and threw out of and five-wide empty sets. The run formations largely worked; well, the passes out of them did anyway. Max protection was part of it, and out of necessity Monken had to drop it.

The offensive line didn’t play as well as they had in previous weeks, but after reviewing the game I didn’t think they were as horrible as I initially thought, given the tough assignment they were asked to do while trying to dig themselves out of that hole. But it was still their worst game of the year, and they had way too many mental mistakes.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t as bad as I initially thought either, but 1) it was clearly his worst game of the season, by far, and 2) he still wasn’t good. Bad is better than horrible I guess. I don’t know why the Bucs don’t let him make run/pass checks (can he not do it? I’m sure he can). Regardless, he made plenty of mistakes. Locking on to his first read, missing throws, holding the ball too long, etc. He was missing/not seeing wide open receivers in the second half as well. Like this play for example.

NFL.com

Here Fitzpatrick throws it to Humphries at the 15-yard line instead of the wide open Howard behind him. A few plays later, he takes a sack that is on him and not the offensive line, holding the ball for a long time despite open receivers. The Bucs would settle for another field goal.

I said last week in the Eagles review that while he made mistakes they didn’t end up hurting the team. Not only were his mistakes more numerous against the Steelers, they definitely cost the team. If we’re being honest, I think it’s clear that Fitzpatrick has played progressively worse each week, despite continuing to throw for 400 yards.

That’s not to say he didn’t have stretches of really good play in the second half - he did. He settled down a bit in the fourth quarter, did a great job avoiding pressure and extending the play, made accurate throws, and threw some touchdowns. But he also had two or three more dropped interceptions late in the game while pressing. The good stuff he did do just wasn’t enough. If we’re going to criticize Winston for all of his second-half yards and points that “don’t matter” because the Bucs lost the game after digging themselves a hole with interceptions (and we certainly have), well, we have to say the same about this game.

Just as important as Fitzpatrick’s mistakes though were Koetter’s, and they undoubtedly cost the Bucs points too, like they did last year. He decided to punt from the Steelers 37-yard line instead of going for it on fourth down or trying a 53-yard field goal attempt. Generally, from that field position, the field position you gain for your defense isn’t worth giving up possession. That is especially true for this defense. He also wrongly chose to kick a field goal inside the 5-yard line. Teams score about 40 percent of the time when going for it in that situation, and it carries an expected points of about four. Meaning if you kick the field goal you are actually giving up a point on average. If you go for it and fail the Steelers would have been backed up very deep in their territory, which might be the only thing that can help this defense. And late in the fourth quarter he chose to punt the ball back to the Steelers despite knowing his defense isn’t good. I understand trusting your guys, and sending that message, but you also have to be realistic and make decisions that maximize your chances to win. Because at the end of the day, that’s your greatest game-day responsibility as a coach. Koetter failed that opportunity. The Bucs’ offense predictably never got the ball back as the Steelers ran out the last 2:36 on the clock.

The Bucs should be upset with themselves. They should have won this game. For the second week in a row they shot themselves in the foot with self-inflicted mistakes, but this time it cost them a win. If they can clean things up, and not beat themselves with mistakes, and if Koetter can learn fourth-down math, then there won’t be a team in the league they can’t beat.