Bucs-Giants: Less Cookie, More Koetter

The Buccaneers were predictable against Minnesota, and that’s a problem

I’d venture to say that every NFL team has a good Plan A. That is to say, if the basic original game plan works the way the coaching staff draws it up, that team will most likely win the game.

Even the Browns have a clear Plan A: Deshone Kizer has a good day under center, Joe Thomas and his linemates open up holes in the running game, and the revamped defense comes up big. When the Browns do that, they’ll win or at least take a team to their limit.

The difference, then, between a good NFL team and a not-so-great NFL team is their ability to adjust to changing conditions. What’s Plan B? What’s Plan C?

With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Plan A is clear and it’s a good one. With so many weapons on offense, a hopefully improved offensive line, and a strong-armed quarterback, the Bucs should be able to keep defenses on their heels from the opening kickoff all the way through.

Defensively, Plan A is similar. Mike Smith runs a defense that alternates between 4-3 and 3-4 looks, and with the Buccaneers’ talent at linebacker this can keep offenses guessing all day long on the right day.

Problematically, the Buccaneers learned last week that Plan A does not always work. On Sunday, it appeared they were lacking for lettered plans beyond that.

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes (26) runs from Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, right, after intercepting a pass during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Minneapolis. Photo: AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn.

The Bucs abandoned the run entirely after just nine running plays. That implies that, at least until Doug Martin returns, Plan B for the running game is “don’t.” In turn, this gives Jameis Winston an opportunity to fall into bad habits of being careless with the football, and we saw that on Sunday against the Vikings as well.

More alarmingly, the offense was predictable. Even without the ground game, that is cause for concern, as the Buccaneers have four very good passing targets as well as a couple more who are capable but unproven. Minnesota had no problem keying in on one player at a time and making a play. It is hard to imagine the Buccaneers winning this way.

On defense, with four starters out at the beginning of the game and more leaving due to injury throughout, talent was limited. Evidently, it was so limited that there seemed to be no point whatsoever in making adjustments. Either through lack of depth of lack of scheme, the Bucs left Vikings receivers wide open as a matter of routine. Case Keenum put up good numbers, but one would hope an NFL quarterback can hit uncovered men.

Those injury concerns might be a convenient reason for the Bucs’ lack of performance last week, but this is football. Injuries are a part of the game, and any team looking to have a truly successful season needs to have contingencies in place. Of course a Kwon Alexander or a Lavonte David can’t be replaced, but champions are champions because they are able to overcome injuries through creativity and depth.

The Buccaneers’ week four matchup with the Giants, then, is a major test for the team’s coaching staff. Dirk Koetter needs to come up with an offensive game plan that keeps the New York Giants guessing and spreads the ball around. He also needs to commit to the run game more, rather than putting Jameis Winston in a position where he can fall back into the kind of “gunslinger” habits that have worked for exactly one quarterback in the history of the NFL.

Defensively, Mike Smith has to make things work no matter who is injured. Simply put, if Eli Manning has people open as often as Case Keenum did, my advice to you would be to go to Vegas, take the Giants, and take the over. We have seen Eli do this multiple times: The Giants look rough for the first few weeks, then Manning throws for an absurd amount of yards and the team north Jersey calls Big Blue wins by three scores. Preventing that from happening is critical.

In terms of personnel, the Buccaneers are in a position to be the most creative team in football if they want to be. With two capable tight ends, two premier wide receivers, an improvisational quarterback, and enough running backs to run the Wishbone if they were so inclined, the Buccaneers have room to be the most unpredictable team in football.

In week two, that team kept the Bears guessing and grasping at straws all day long on both sides of the ball. In week three, fans at home could have predicted the play at the line by the second drive. One was a blowout win, the other a blowout loss. This all goes to show just how important it is for the Buccaneers to be versatile.

NFL

Football fans often overlook special teams.

The third phase of the game is when many go to the fridge to grab another drink. It’s a chance for people to get an early start on making that early afternoon sandwich.

It’s also the hidden factor in deciding close games in any level of football.

Missed field goals leave points on the board and give away favorable field position. Poor kick returns and punt returns give the offense a longer field than their opponents. Poor kick coverage can make even good defenses look bad. A good punter can be a boost for a team’s defense.

In their first two games, the Buccaneers’ special teams have been a mixed bag. Bryan Anger remains a great punter, and the team’s kick coverage will help an injured defense. The bad news is that the Bucs struggle to return kicks well and have for just about their entire history, they struggle to make kicks, and that adds up to a challenge for the offense.

In 2016, it seemed as though the Buccaneers would put an emphasis on the third phase. They drafted Roberto Aguayo and signed Anger. One of those moves even worked out okay. Since then, however, they seem to have let special teams fall by the wayside. Local product Bernard Reedy looks to change that, but so far he hasn’t found a seam in his kick returns. Should he catch his stride, that could be a weapon that makes the offense that much more productive.

To win this game, the Buccaneers need to perform adequately on the defensive side of the football. The Giants are in a down year, at least so far, but Eli Manning didn’t go from a capable quarterback to an old man overnight, and Odell Beckham Junior continues to play. With the Bucs likely missing David, Alexander, and T.J. Ward, it’s going to take one big game plan from Mike Smith to get the team back on track.

The silver lining in that is that New York’s offensive line has not been stellar to this point in the year. Even with some backups, the Buccaneers should expect to rush the passer and create some hurried throws. The more time Manning has, the more likely the Giants will be to pull off the victory.

With three of the biggest stars on the defense out, that’s still going to be a tall order. The Giants are going to play desperate, coming in 0-3 and having looked really bad in at least two of those losses. In recent history, the Giants have rebounded from slow starts before, albeit nothing quite like this. They need a win as much as any team in football, and their offensive personnel have proven good at putting together a great game under those circumstances.

Offensively, the Buccaneers need a run game. If they run the ball fewer than ten times again, they will be embarrassed again. This requires both a commitment from Koetter toward the run and some actual effectiveness on the ground. Doug Martin will be back for Week 5, but for now it’s still Jacquizz Rodgers’ job to carry the football.

This will require creativity, and perhaps some outside runs around O.J. Howard who has proven himself a capable blocker thus far. Speaking of Howard, he needs to be more involved in the passing game than his one reception in garbage time last week. The Buccaneers also need to connect on the long passing plays they trot out about once every other drive. Thus far, Jameis Winston has airmailed receivers on that play, and connecting on a deep route could turn an entire game.

The Buccaneers win if: Winston is asked to lead the offense rather than win on his own, the defense gets in Eli Manning’s face, and receivers are covered as opposed to what they were in Minnesota.

The Giants win if: The Buccaneers’ defensive game plan leaves receivers in the middle of the field alone, the offense abandons the run immediately again, and injuries have the team playing like a practice squad for the second straight week.

Bottom line: In many ways, this is the biggest game of Dirk Koetter’s head coaching tenure, and it’ll likely be on his ability to adjust that the Buccaneers win or lose on Sunday.

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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.