The regular season is finally over, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still playing football. The plan of going “all-in” with Tom Brady and co. has worked up until this point, evidenced by Tampa Bay’s 11-5 record and first playoff appearance since the 2007 season.
Tampa Bay is also playing pretty damn good football right now, as well. Per betonline.ag, the Bucs opened at a solid (-7) against the Washington Football Team, but this is the playoffs and anything can happen. Fans know this all too well based off Tampa Bay’s last two underwhelming postseason performances.
The Bucs, like every other team, have questions they’ll have to answer if they want a win on Saturday. Let’s dive in and take a look at what needs to get figured out during Wild Card Weekend.
Can the Bucs overcome their prime time woes?
I’m usually of the mindset that superstition, while fun, has no place in everyday, ordinary decision making. However, there is something in the water when it comes to the Bucs and prime time in 2020.
Tampa Bay’s only win on the national stage was a two-point escape in New York. The ironic part is that win represents Tampa Bay’s ceiling in prime time games, which is obviously not a high one. Tampa Bay’s floor during prime time —aka the Week 9 loss to the Saints— is about as close to rock bottom as you can get.
Tom Brady and co. have played in four prime time games this year. The 1-3 record doesn’t look too terrible considering that two of the three losses were by a combined four points. Most would probably think, “Hey, if a couple things go this way or that, they could’ve won those games”. But it begins to get pretty dirty when you start looking under the rug.
Each loss featured a performance better suited for the bottom-feeders of the league. 11 penalties for 109 yards doomed Tampa Bay in Chicago. The Saints dominated the Bucs so thoroughly that Tampa Bay ran for an NFL-record low five times as team (and scored only three points). The loss to the Rams on Monday Night Football featured a league-worst 72% positive play percentage and third-worst EPA/att allowed through the air for that week.
Slow starts have been a big issue. The Bucs average 8.3 first half points in their four prime time games compared to 17.7 first half points in the other 12 games. Per Sports Info Solutions, Tom Brady averages a mark of 0.24 EPA/att* in the first half of non-prime time games compared to a mark of -0.19 EPA/att in prime time games.
It’s not just about the offense, either. The Bucs’ defense also hasn’t been up to par in these games. Nick Foles and the Bears were allowed to drive down the field for the game-winning field goal, the Giants were the first team in 2020 to notch a 100-yard performance and average over 4.0 yards per clip against the Bucs, the Saints scored 31 first half points, and the Rams drove down the field with seconds left in the first half for a quick field goal that wound up as the difference in the game.
Tampa Bay will be the Wild Card Weekend’s Saturday nightcap. Kickoff is set for 815PM EST.
That’s considered prime time, my friends.
The Bucs better get it figured out or else there may be an early vacancy from the playoffs.
Will the Bucs be able to identify pressure packages correctly and keep Tom Brady upright?
Overall, Tampa Bay’s offensive line has been very good at keeping Brady upright. Per Football Outsiders, the Bucs offensive line boasts the league’s third-lowest sack rate and they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest sacks (22). In all, the Bucs have allowed the seventh-lowest pressure rate (16.2%) in the NFL.
Those are good numbers, but Brady has been hit quite a bit. In fact, he’s been taken down the fifth-most amount of times in the NFL. He’s been sacked six times over the last three games, which matches a season-high through any three-game stretch.
That’s not ideal for a 43-year-old quarterback that has the second-most passing attempts in the NFL. One reason Brady has been hit so much is because defensive coordinators are finding ways to dial up creative pressure packages/blitz schemes.
All you have to do is go back to the Week 15 matchup against the Falcons for an idea of what I’m talking about.
Watch the following play. Atlanta comes out with five defenders showing blitz, but only two have their hands in the dirt. The Falcons do a good job of mixing up their personnel along the line of scrimmage. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, a defensive tackle, is standing up over the B gap (No. 91), while linebackers Foyesade Oluokun (No. 54) and Dante Fowler Jr. (No. 56) align at the “nose” and “3T” to help create some initial confusion:
The ball is snapped and two of the five defenders on the line of scrimmage —the “nose” and the “3T”— drop into coverage. Tuiot-Mariner crashes the A gap, which is Alex Cappa’s responsibility to defend. Cappa naturally picks him up, but it leaves Tristan Wirfs in a very unenviable position, as you can see below:
Deion Jones blitzes though the B gap from his linebacker spot, which leaves Wirfs with a 2-v-1 situation because Cappa is on Tuiot-Mariner. Naturally, Wirfs has to take the edge rusher, Steven Means, and leaves Jones all alone for the sack.
What keys this play is the drop in coverage by Oluokun. He’s lined up over Ryan Jensen in order to manipulate the assignment. That obviously no longer becomes the case once he drops into coverage, but the drop holds Jensen long enough for Jones to get by. This is a very good example of creating zone pressure and you can see Jensen throw his arms up in frustration afterward:
This is a really good design so you can’t fault the Bucs too much, here, but this can’t happen in the playoffs. Tape study, coaching, and in-game communication are the keys to making sure this doesn’t occur on Saturday.
The Football Team is more about getting pressure with four linemen, but they are also good at disguising pressure. Because of this, they are ninth in overall pressure percentage (24.8%) and have the sixth-most sacks (47) in the NFL.
Here’s a creative example of one of Jack Del Rio’s blitz schemes. For starters, the Football Team has three down linemen when they usually have four. Linebackers Jon Bostic (No. 53) and Thomas Davis Sr. (No. 58) are both showing blitz on the defensive left side. Defensive linemen Daron Payne (No. 94) and James Smith-Williams (No. 96) are playing the 1T and the 4i. Defensive ends Montez Sweat (No. 90) and Chase Young (No. 99) are both at 9T out wide. When you add safety Kamren Curl (No. 31) creeping around the line of scrimmage and making it a 4-v-3 advantage for the Football Team, it really looks like the defense is about to blitz from the defensive left.
But Washington does the exact opposite. Sweat, Davis Sr., and Curl all drop into coverage. On the other side, Del Rio blitzes with a delayed corner blitz. Payne and Bostic execute the A gap stunt while Smith-Williams takes the B gap and Young takes the C.
There’s already a lot going on before the snap and in the moments subsequently after. All of the action causes Cincinnati’s protection to completely lose sight of cornerback Jimmy Moreland, who just loops around the pile of bodies and initiates the sack on Ryan Finley. Smith-Williams cleans up the play and forces the 4th down.
Here’s the wide shot. Moreland is lined up as the slot corner on the three-man side of the formation:
Per Pro Football Focus, Brady’s adjusted completion percentage drops from 73.9% to the NFL’s third-worst rate (57.9%) when he’s kept clean compared to under pressure and his quarterback rating drops from 115.1 in a clean pocket to 54.5 when under pressure.
Per SIS, Brady’s efficiency drops from 0.27 EPA/att and a 57.3% positive play percentage when kept clean to -0.42 EPA/att and a 30.9% positive play percentage when under pressure.
The Bucs must keep Brady clean and upright if they want to win this game.
Can the offense produce with a hobbled or absent Mike Evans?
Bruce Arians said on Monday that Evans will be considered “day-to-day”, which is pretty wild in its own right. But even though that sounds encouraging, the Bucs still need to have a plan in case Evans is limited or can’t go on Saturday.
It’s a small sample size, but we’ve seen what this offense looks like to a degree without the best receiver in Buccaneer history. So far, the Bucs have been able to keep pace on offense without him —for the most part.
Jameis Winston averaged 330 yards through the air and two passing touchdowns per game without Evans in 2019. Last week’s game against the Falcons saw Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin combine for 13 receptions, 214 yards, and three receiving touchdowns on 18 targets after Evans went down.
There is a bit of room for concern, however, in this regard: Evans averaged seven targets per game through 15 games. I removed the 16th game since he only played the one quarter. Tampa Bay averaged 26.2 points per game in the six games where he received less than seven targets. The Bucs averaged 31.6 points per game in the nine games where he received at least seven targets.
It’s one thing to get by when a player goes down with an injury during a game. It’s a lot different when a team has a whole week to prep (plus three quarters of game tape) for the possibility of said player not playing. That’s the advantage that Washington has with this situation.
Oh, and don’t forget the small fact that this is a playoff game, where every mistake is amplified to an exponential degree. If Evans is limited or can’t go, that leaves room for —with all due respect— players who aren’t as good to be on the field more often, which in turn leaves more room for potential mistakes.
But it’s hard to see this offense dropping off too much when you consider all of the talent around Brady. Don’t get me wrong, you want Evans in this game. He adds his own dynamic element that compliments this offense to the highest of highs. When you consider the likes of Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronkowski, and others, however, it’s easy to see why there isn’t a whole lot of reason to panic.
*EPA/att is through Week 16
Devin White’s absence is another question that will need to be answered, but last week we received a glimpse of how the Bucs plan on playing this game without him. Regardless, they’ll still need to find creative ways to replace one of the more atheltic linebackers in the league for one more week.
What do questions do YOU think the Bucs need to answer this weekend? Let us know in the comment section below!
Which question do the Bucs need to answer the most?
This poll is closed
Can they get over their prime time woes?
Can they protect Brady?
What will the offense look like without Mike Evans?