When The Bucs Are Great, You Won’t See It Coming

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) gets past New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler after a reception during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack.

To reach the next level, the Buccaneers need to be creative

When the Buccaneers showed up at training camp this summer, fans couldn’t help but be excited about the possibilities on offense. With OJ Howard and Desean Jackson added to an offense that was already productive in 2016, the sky was the limit in the passing game.

Perhaps the most exciting part was that with four good receiving targets, two of them tight ends, and four running backs on the roster, it seemed that there was no way an opponent could really gear up to take on Tampa Bay.This looked to be an unpredictable offense that would always keep opponents guessing.

The product so far has not lived up to our imaginations. The Buccaneers on offense have become predictable and relatively easily thrown off their game. While more talk is on Jameis Winston’s seemingly stalled development, it might be that the offense he’s running is simply not putting him in a position that plays to his strengths and helps him avoid falling into bad habits like a certain carelessness in the passing game.

For the Buccaneers to reach the next level, to make the playoffs and actually look like they belong there, their offense needs to be much less predictable. Take, for instance, Jameis Winston’s once-a-game pass down the sideline to Desean Jackson that has yet to be completed. That pass existed last season before Jackson was with Tampa Bay as well, with similar results. It has become such a staple of Buccaneers football that I like to joke it’s only an official game when Winston tries it.

Last week, against a coach who will eat a predictable football team alive, that pass resulted in a dropped interception.

If you need another example, you don’t have to look beyond third and short. In those situations, Tampa Bay hands the ball off to Doug Martin and asks him to get yards between the tackles so often you can read the play at the line from home. If we can see it coming, the defense can as well, which is why that play rarely works.

Defensively, Mike Smith’s unit has figured this out. Even without Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, that Tampa Bay defense kept a Patriots offense still led by Tom Brady on their heels all night long last week. They sent occasional blitzes from a variety of positions, alternated between zone and man coverage, and minimized the run threat from the Patriots. David will make his return on Sunday at Arizona, and TJ Ward will join Justin Evans at safety. After last week’s impressive performance, much will be expected of a healthier group.

By creativity, I mean that the Buccaneers need to spread the ball around more in the passing game while shuffling the running game around.

Jameis Winston believed his own lack of execution was the difference in the Buccaneers week 5 loss to New England. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

On most downs, Tampa Bay puts two tight ends on the football field. Two TE sets are good for this purpose, as they look run-oriented but are much less so when both tight ends can bring in passes. With a single running back, the Buccaneers could line up five passing targets most of the time. The trick is using all of them.

Howard does not get a lot of targets. The rookie is averaging a reception per game thus far, and a guy who could be a premier red zone weapon’s only touchdown came on a long reception and run. Fellow rookie Chris Godwin also is limited to just four catches in as many games. Between the two of them, they’ve been targeted fewer than four times per game. That’s less often than the Bucs call for a passing play to their running backs.

The personnel sometimes undermines Dirk Koetter’s ability to get creative. Every time Charles Sims is on the field, the Buccaneers are likely to pass the ball, often specifically to Sims.

Another thing that undermines the Buccaneers’ ability to keep defenses guessing is how poorly they respond to being behind by any score in the second half. “If you’re losing games, you’re throwing.” Dirk Koetter was referring to the blowout loss to Minnesota when he said that the other day, but it was true against the Patriots as well. Tampa Bay came out of the locker room for halftime down just a score, but they played like they were down three. What little running Tampa Bay did in the second half was specifically for the purpose of keeping New England’s defense honest, which it failed to do.

Opponents have combined across the Buccaneers’ first four games to possess the ball 9:38 longer than the Bucs. This is a sharp contrast to last season, when Koetter and company put together impressive eight minute or more drives in the third quarter to drain opponents’ energy. With four backs and five capable pass targets, these Buccaneers could master that kind of drive and dominate time of possession.

When trailing, the Buccaneers’ offenses loses several dimensions. Last week, it took Doug Martin out of the game when Martin was responsible for the second quarter touchdown which to that point was keeping Tampa Bay in the game. In turn, such a reliance on the passing game puts Winston in a position to play “hero ball” as they say in the basketball world.

According to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Winston “is really at his best…when the game is on the line.” He does have a way of driving the Buccaneers down the field in the fourth quarter, but the amount he puts the ball in the air in the second half of football games can also bring out his worst. The young quarterback is interception-prone and not always the greatest at making post-snap decisions. An offense that has him lob the ball up anytime they exit the locker room down by so much as a field goal is going to put him in a position to turn the football over.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Patrick Murray (7) kicks against the Minnesota Vikings during the first half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Minneapolis. Photo: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt.

Expect Patrick Murray to have to make an important kick late in the game because that’s generally how these sorts of things work. The Buccaneers’ new kicker was pretty good in his other season with the team, but kickers getting hurt can endanger their entire careers. Murray won the job in a tryout, but the kicker from Fordham could cement himself in the position with a big make or two on Sunday evening.

Should Murray make the kicks he’s asked to make, the big question on special teams becomes how to get something out of the return game. St. Pete’s own Bernard Reedy had a good punt return against New England, but otherwise has produced very little in the role. As good of a story as a local guy playing a role in Bucs football may be, the return game is another one of those things that can make everybody else’s job much easier. Combined with the excellent punting Bryan Anger has displayed as a Buccaneer, a good return game could give the Buccaneers a heavy advantage in terms of field position.

The Buccaneers win Sunday if: The defense continues to find its form, the offense spreads the ball around enough to keep Tyrann Mathieu and the Cardinals’ defense from keying in on any one aspect of it, Patrick Murray is still the guy we remember from a few years ago, and those of us watching from our living rooms can’t read Dirk Koetter’s mind this time around.

The Cardinals win Sunday if: The Cardinals come out of their locker room for the second half with a lead and the Buccaneers leave Doug Martin in theirs as a result.

Bottom line: Given the Cardinals’ performance to this point in the season, this is the kind of game the Buccaneers need to win to stay in the playoff race. It’s one thing to lose to teams like New England, but losses in games where they’re favored on the road would indicate they’re taking a step in the wrong direction.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.