It’s all official. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs and will play the 7-9 Washington Football Team in the first round. What a ride it’s been, right?
Coming off a 7-9 record themselves in 2019, the Bucs were able to overcome some middle of the road adversity to finish the season 4-0 en route to a much improved 11 wins. While there were many questions about the consistency of this offense through that mid-season sputter, these questions were seemingly answered over the last month and I think we can all say that this team is hot.
However, over the last four games, they haven’t faced off against a defense like the Washington Football Team. While they may only enter the playoffs with seven wins, they did show a lot on the defensive side of the ball that makes me think this game will be closer than projected.
Memories of the Thursday night game in Chicago, and the Monday night game in New York come to mind when thinking about this upcoming matchup. Reason being? Well, all of these teams have fairly mediocre offenses, with pretty good defenses.
With this being said though, the Bucs offense we’re looking at now is much improved to the one we saw in those matchups so this may go either way. The increase in play action, pre-snap motion, and shallower route combinations have all contributed to this hot streak and I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere.
On the other side of the ball, the Buccaneers have struggled mightily during certain points of the season, and the end of the season was also quite rocky. But with the offense being so good, some of these issues have been masked.
Even though they’ve worried me, I don’t think this is the week to worry too much about it because the Washington offense is one of the worst in the league. To make matters worse for them, there are questions as to whether or not Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke, or both will be taking snaps under center.
On Wednesday, it seemed as though Heinicke will start as he took the first team snaps, however we will just have to wait and see who will be coming out this Saturday. No matter who is back there though, they both share some weaknesses that can be exploited.
I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just dive right in to what the Buccaneers can do to earn a spot in the Divisional Round.
Throw it underneath
This key is multifaceted primarily because throwing it underneath should accomplish a few things that can make the Bucs successful. Throwing it short gets the chains moving, gets the ball out faster, and prevents that pass rush from getting to Brady.
Preventing sacks will be a big one against this Washington front as they currently rank fourth in the NFL in pressure percentage at 25.6%.* What makes this even more worrisome though, is that their blitz percentage is ranked 13th in the NFL as they only blitz on 32.4% of opposing dropbacks.*
They’re hitting home with four quite often and it’s because they have some premier pass rushing talent. The combination of Montez Sweat and Chase Young has been pretty devastating for opposing offenses as they’ve put together 16.5 sacks between them, with the grizzled veteran Ryan Kerrigan adding 5.5 of his own in a limited role.
Even with the Bucs offensive line playing to the level that they have been, I think it would still benefit this offense immensely if they’re able to mitigate these pass rushers with scheme, rather than pure talent on every down. In order to do this schematically, one of the best ways to accomplish this is to throw it short.
With the way that Bruce Arians likes the run his offenses, this may seem different than what we would typically see from this team. However with the addition of Tom Brady, we’re starting to see a lot more of the short-intermediate passing game.
What’s so good about this, especially against Washington, is that these high percentage throws make second and third downs so much more manageable. On top of this, Washington likes to drop deep in Cover 3 or an inverted Tampa 2 which leaves a lot of opportunities underneath.
Here’s a look at the Giants having success against some of these off coverages:
Washington looks to be in Cover 3 here and the outside corners are about eight yards off the line of scrimmage. When the receiver breaks on the out, the corner is still about three yards off of him which makes the catch that much easier.
This is a pretty typical drop for the Washington defense so these types of routes should be open more often than not.
While they do like to run these deeper zone concepts, they also like to play man to man when they send an extra man on the blitz. When they do come out in these coverages there are some combinations like spacing or pick concepts that can really make it easy for these receivers to get open, like the Steelers were successful with here:
The Washington Football Team sends a blitz here while everyone else is man to man. The Steelers have two tight ends to the left and they force a natural pick when the tight end on the inside stems upfield. This makes it so that the guy covering Eric Ebron has to fight through traffic to get there and he doesn’t have the speed to catch up.
This is a quick, efficient play that makes the entire offense’s job easier. Not only is it a wide open throw, but Ben Roethlisberger is able to get the ball out before the blitz can hit home. With the WFT being good at rushing the passer, getting the ball out quickly will be a priority.
On top of this, the Washington defense is very good at limiting big play ability. In terms of explosive passes allowed they are third best in the NFL, only allowing passes of 15 or more yards on 6% of opposing attempts according to Sharp Football Stats.
Now this is not to say that the high-powered Tampa Bay offense won’t be able to connect on big plays, but it will be much more difficult than it was against teams like Atlanta and Detroit.
Get to the QB (whoever it ends up being)
If I were the Washington Football Team I would start Alex Smith, even if he is a little limited with the calf tightness that he has been experiencing lately. Not only because I personally want to see Smith start a playoff game after his horrific injury, but because he’s the better quarterback.
Heinicke saw limited action in relief of Dwayne Haskins Jr. against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 and he had a pretty decent statline. He was 12 of 19 for 137 yards and a touchdown in less than a quarter of play.
Yet when we look at the tape, it tells a much different story. The Panthers were up two touchdowns when Heinicke came into the game and played a lot of deep coverage to avoid giving up big plays.
One of the major issues I saw with him while watching this, was that he just can’t drive the ball or put any sort of zip on it.
This issue led to two opportunities for the Panthers to turn the ball over, but the ball was dropped both times. Here’s a look at one of these, and keep in mind that almost all of his throws were like this:
Washington sends a receiver upfield from the slot and he’s able to find a nice open spot between zones, but the throw is off by a mile.
If you look at Heinicke’s footwork, you can see that he doesn’t follow through all the way with his left foot, even when there isn’t pressure in his face. If the Bucs end up facing him instead of Smith, getting pressure on him would make these throws even worse and lead to turnovers.
Now let’s get into why the Bucs want to pressure Alex Smith. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that pressuring the quarterback is a positive thing for a defense. However against Alex Smith, not only will pressuring him be easier than it has been as of late, but it will also lead to more problems for the Washington offense than it would other teams.
Smith has historically been a safe passer who will take what’s open and not really look downfield. Well, not much has changed. If anything, the injury has made him more likely to throw it well before pressure even gets there.
When pressure does get there, he’s not very mobile and it will lead him to throw some passes that we just didn’t really see out of him prior to his injury. Let’s look at that:
Remember how I said that Heinicke throws high because he doesn’t follow through with his lead foot? Well, this is exactly what happens here because of the pressure that the Eagles were able to get.
Smith senses the pressure and decides that he needs to get rid of it before he gets hit but because he didn’t follow through, he ended up short-arming it. Unfortunately for Smith, his offensive line has put him in this position quite a few times.
The Washington Football Team will be fielding a line that has allowed 50 sacks this season (T-2nd most in NFL), against a team that has 48 sacks this year (T-4th most in NFL). To make matters worse for Smith, he is pressured on 30.3% of all dropbacks, which causes problems even if he isn’t sacked.*
If the Bucs want to make us all believe in their defense, they have to keep this team below their season average 20.9 points. Otherwise, I think we’ll all be a little worried about the viability of this defense going further into the playoffs (if they win obviously) if they give up more than that.
Cover the short game
While getting to the passer will be helpful for winning this game especially with the potential for turnovers, there still has to be something the Bucs can do to stop them when they aren’t able to get there.
One way to do that against Washington is to sight tight on routes and cover everything underneath. The reason for this, is that Smith does not throw the ball downfield. While he does have attempts downfield, they are few and far between.
He would rather throw it to the wide open receiver instead of the receiver downfield who would be forced to make a play. This is pretty evident from watching the film, but also from his statistics. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Smith has the lowest average intended air yards per throw in the league with an incredibly low five yard average.
When I was looking through these statistics, I was expecting to see this coupled with Smith also having the shortest time to throw in the NFL as well. However, it turns out that Smith is 13th in this area. What this means is that he is still sitting in the pocket for quite a bit of time before he unloads it for only five yards.
If the Bucs want to limit this offense, they’ll need to come up and play these receivers at the line of scrimmage and prevent them from breaking tackles, as this team has some very good offensive talent.
With this team throwing short all the time, Todd Bowles’ Cover 3 zone scheme would allow a lot of dink and dunks underneath and we would most likely see some successful drives from a team with one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
Tampa Bay needs to play to the opponent here and make sure that they don’t sit back and wait on an offense whose quarterback averages five intended air yards per throw.
We’re going to find out in a couple of days if this Bucs team is actually a contender, or if they’re a year away. With the Washington Football Team bringing one of the NFL’s top defenses, this offense will need to bring their A-game to put up points.
Defensively, all they have to do is keep Alex Smith (or Heinicke) under pressure and they should force a few turnovers. If they’re not able to get to them, they just need to make sure that keep their receivers close. If not, these receivers (and runningbacks) are going to catch short passes and pick up tons of YAC.
Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, and Cam Sims are going to be a problem. Even without a guy to get them the ball consistently, then can make things happen at any moment.
Here’s to hoping there’s another week for Tampa Bay.
*Per Pro Football Reference