Is it time to throw a party yet now that your Tampa Bay Buccaneers are leading the division?! Well, no. It’s only been three games but...it’s still exciting isn’t it!
For the second week in a row, the Bucs are playing a beat up AFC West team, this time it will be played against the San D...Los Angeles Chargers in Tampa Bay.
While the Chargers typically have a lot of injuries to key players on the season, this time, they’ll be without some of their best in an early season matchup. They have lost Derwin James Jr. for the season, and now they will be without Chris Harris Jr., Melvin Ingram, Mike Pouncey, Tyrod Taylor, and potentially some others that did not participate during this week’s practice.
Despite the injuries, the Buccaneers should not be writing this team off as that can often come back to bite them. This team is still able to apply pressure and often does so without bringing more than four.
Having a star pass rusher like Joey Bosa really helps in that department. Against the Panthers in Week 3, the Chargers were able to apply pressure on 38.7% of dropbacks which is a little higher than the Bucs 38.3% pressure rate against the same team.* One thing to keep in mind here is that the Chargers don’t blitz a lot, meaning that they’ll have that many more guys dropping into coverage.
Well now I’m spoiling it a bit. Let’s just dive right in to what the Bucs can do to come out with a win this Sunday in Raymond James Stadium.
Get the running-backs involved in the passing game
While the Buccaneers rushing attack has a lot left to be desired, that doesn’t mean that the backs shouldn’t be getting the ball. Especially against the Chargers.
Through three games, the Chargers have allowed 20 catches (7th most in the NFL*) for 112 yards and 1 touchdown to running-backs. While these aren’t game breaking numbers, the Chargers defensive scheme often leaves a lot of opportunities for these backs to catch the ball and get free.
Against the Panthers in Week 3, they gave up 8 catches for 45 yards and that 1 touchdown to Mike Davis. This is the most through the first three weeks and I think it’s because of the ways in which the panthers worked against LA’s Cover 3 zone.
The Chargers vary in their coverage, as all teams do, however they are typically using a Cover 3 scheme that can easily be taken advantage of with misdirects and screens.
Here’s an example of this below:
In a Cover 3 scheme, you typically see a single deep safety, but the corners will bail out and play deep, allowing receivers to peel off underneath to be picked up by linebackers (or the SS on the strong side).
On this play in particular, the Panthers drew up a 3x1 set and ran a screen away from the strong side. The single receiver on the left runs a crossing route, forcing the corner to bail while simultaneously occupying the eyes of the linebacker covering the flat/curl zone.
If you’ll notice, I paused it for just a second just so you can see where the coverage is occupied. Almost the entire defense is dropping to cover deep where the strongside receivers go. That’s three guys being forced out of the play, simply because of the route combination.
In terms of the actual screen, it is read really well by the weakside linebacker and only goes for a 9 yard gain. However, if the Panthers were able to get a better block on him, this play could’ve gone for 20 yards and a first down.
These 9 yards weren’t picked up by sheer will, spectacular highlight style moves, or missed tackles. These yards were picked up purely through the play call.
While the screen game is effective against this sort of scheme, another way to get the backs to get involved is through throwing to the flat.
The flats are a general weakness against Cover 3, simply because you have the outside corners bailing, while the underneath zones are occupied with any crossers or intermediate digs. While there is technically a flat/curl zone read for the weakside linebacker and strong safety, they can potentially be occupied with deeper routes, leaving the flats wide open for check-downs.
Even if they become privy to the same call coming over and over and they continue to give up yards in the flat, you can start calling those intermediate middle of the field routes that will now be left open by the compensating cover man.
Now, let’s look at something else they can take advantage of against the Chargers Cover 3 scheme.
Use short-intermediate routes
While Cover 3 can really stifle teams that want to throw deep all the time due to the deep thirds of the field being occupied, there are some play designs that can get the ball over or under the underneath coverage.
One such route combination that the Panthers used over and over again was the Hi-Lo combination which can be seen here:
This really is a beautiful route combination against this coverage for a few reasons. First, if you look at tight end (closest man to LOS) you’ll see that he occupies not one, but two of the four underneath zones for enough time that Robby Anderson is able to get wide open.
This is because he is splitting the two of them, and they aren’t quite sure if he’ll be cutting in, cutting out, or streaking deep. This slight hesitation leaves plenty of room underneath.
Second, the running-back coming out of the backfield occupies the weakside linebacker who is covering the flat/curl zone I brought up earlier, leaving space on the far side that allows for an easy catch and run.
Third, the slot receiver’s route occupies the box safety and forces the wide corner to bail, essentially taking two guys out of the play.
The Panthers got away with this countless times and picked up quite a few yards on it. If the Bucs employ this sort of route combination, or something similar, a crossing Scotty Miller would be a really nice thing to see.
Even if the Chargers start to pick up on this and they start covering the crossing route more tightly, that leaves a guy like Rob Gronkowski or OJ Howard one on one with a linebacker in coverage, and we all saw how well that went for the Broncos.
Contain Austin Ekeler
This offense may be headed by rookie Justin Herbert, but it all goes through former UDFA running-back, Austin Ekeler.
Through three games, Austin Ekeler is 7th in the league in rushing, posting 236 yards on 47 carries, which leads to about an average of 5 yards a run. On the receiving side, he is second in the NFL for running-backs with 142 yards receiving on only 16 catches, meaning that he is averaging close to 9 yards per reception.
One big reason for this success is because of his shiftiness and ability to break tackles. While he isn’t the human joystick that Dante Hall was, he really does know how to make NFL athletes miss.
In fact, Ekeler is tied for 4th in the NFL in broken tackles with 8, which ties with Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey. So what can the Bucs do to ensure that they’re able to contain him in the run game and out of the backfield?
Well, the simplest answer is to just tackle him. Of his 236 yards rushing, 122 of them are coming after contact is made. Whether it be through pure elusiveness or through missed tackles, he is definitely picking up more yards than he is being given.
Here’s an example of this that came in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers:
Notice here that he should’ve been bottled up at around the 13 yard line, however, the corner coming in from the bottom the screen took too high of an angle which allowed him to cut into a tiny gap and subsequently bounce to the outside.
If the Bucs are to stop Ekeler from bouncing out like this, they’ll need to take near-perfect angles from the secondary if Lavonte David and Devin White aren’t able to get there first.
Of all of the Chargers running-backs, Ekeler is by far the biggest threat to break a long one, and it’s for reasons like this that he has been so successful. The Chargers will also employ Joshua Kelley, however he is more of a downhill runner so I wouldn’t worry too much about him breaking the big one.
Since the Bucs are one of the better teams in the NFL with stopping the run, I am more worried about Ekeler in the passing game. If they’re able to contain Ekeler in both the run and pass game, it’ll put the weight of the game on the shoulders of Herbert, which is exactly what they’ll want to do.
Stop the screen game
Since the Chargers are thrusting rookie Justin Herbert into the lineup much earlier than they may have hoped, they’re doing a lot of things to ease the stress of leading a team to victory through passing.
As they ease him into the fast-paced game that is the NFL, they’ve been calling quite a few creative looking screens that allow him to pick up a lot of yards, and gain a lot of confidence.
Since taking over the Chargers offense in week 2, Herbert leads the NFL by a wide margin in negative air yards with -74.* This means that a good amount of his passes are coming behind the line of scrimmage and he is second in the NFL in passing yards that come from behind the line of scrimmage with 146 through that two week span.*
This is only second to Drew Brees through Weeks 2 and 3, and Brees has been relying heavily on Alvin Kamara, just as Herbert is with Austin Ekeler.
Take a look at a screen the Chargers drew up for Herbert in Week 3:
This is one of the more creative screens I’ve seen drawn up. While it isn’t some huge innovation, it really allows their offense to pick up yards without a lot of work.
By running a play action screen, they’re able to freeze up the linebackers, then they fake a bootleg which forces these linebackers to sprint to their coverage on the side of said bootleg.
Once they get almost the entire defense going right, they come right back and dump off a short pass to Ekeler who has nothing but green grass ahead of him.
In the Week 3 matchup against the Panthers, the Chargers utilized this sort of play action screen quite a lot. Showing us that they don’t necessarily trust Herbert to drop back and pick apart defenses all on his own for the entire game.
By taking this sort of action away, they’ll be put in a much better position to force Herbert into dropping back and making mistakes. If the Bucs are able to slow this aspect of their offense down, I think that’ll put them in a great position to stop this offense and force turnovers.
As with last week, one of the highest priorities for the Buccaneers will be getting their offense one step closer to its fullest potential. To do that, they’ll need to be able to call a game that allows them to take advantage of the Chargers primary coverage scheme, Cover 3.
In doing so, I expect to see a lot of yards coming from short-intermediate routes until the Chargers prove that they can stop it. From there, I expect to see a few passes come over the top, despite the deep coverage that the Chargers use often.
If they’re able to lull this defense into defending nothing but shorter routes, it may force them to play a little closer to the line, opening up room behind these linebackers and in front of the safeties.
On the defensive side, they need to stop Ekeler, period. Ekeler is the driver of this offense and without him, they’ll need to solely rely on Herbert to get the job done, which is something that the Bucs can take advantage of by forcing mistakes and creating turnovers.
What do you think the Bucs can do to defeat the Chargers in Week 3? What are your thoughts about this game? Tell us what you think!
*Per Sports Info Solutions