The Buccaneers’ offense found its stride and the defense let them down
Regardless of bigger games ahead on the schedule, or the out of conference matchup, the consensus coming into Sunday’s game between the Buccaneers and Bills was that the Bucs’ season was on the line. Win, and they come into division play with at least a chance to make something happen. Lose, and the deficit might be too great.
Losing at halftime, Dirk Koetter came up with some offensive adjustments. Jameis Winston played the second half in a way that showed why he was a first overall draft pick just a few years ago. The Bucs’ offense finally seemed to unlock what it had been missing all year, that creativity that they seemed to be missing had finally shown up in a big way.
Alas, all of it resulted in a loss, as the Tampa Bay defense could not stop the Buffalo Bills—a team whose offense had struggled all season coming in—in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Mike Smith’s talented unit allowed Tyrod Taylor and the Bills to march the ball into the end zone with little to no issue to tie the game late in the fourth, then let Buffalo move the ball off an Adam Humphries fumble to the point where Steven Hauschka had to only make a chip shot to win.
The loss sends the Buccaneers to 2-4 and makes just about every remaining game on the schedule a “must win.” The playoffs are no longer an expectation, now they’re just a pipe dream.
With the Buccaneers ahead 27-20 and just 3:14 to go in the game, a three-and-out could end the Bills’ chances. Sure enough, the Buffalo Bills only ran three plays in the series. The first was a 44 yard reception and a 15 yard penalty at the end of it. The second was a nine yard pass to get the ball to the Tampa Bay 7 yard line. The third was a walk-in touchdown for LeSean McCoy. Just like that, the game was tied. The Bills hardly seemed to have to put any effort in to get that game-tying touchdown.
After an Adam Humphries fumble on the first play of the Bucs’ ensuing possession, the Bills had the ball on the Bucs’ 33. That would have resulted in about a 50 yard field goal attempt had Buffalo not moved the ball. They did move the ball, however, getting down to the 12 yard line where Steven Hauschka knocked home the chip shot field goal to win the game.
In three road games, the Buccaneers’ defense has forced a grand total of three three-and-out series. One in each game. They’ve allowed at least 30 points in all three. They’ve been lit up by Case Keenum, Carson Palmer, and Tyrod Taylor. If this is not filling fans with confidence that they’ll do much to stop Matt Ryan, Cam Netwon, or Drew Brees, that’s very understandable. It’s nearly impossible to win with a weak defense in any division, but in the NFC South it’s a disaster. It’s a division with three great quarterbacks at the helm of three dangerous offenses.
Missed opportunities define the Buccaneers’ season. Coming in, fans thought this was an opportunity for Tampa Bay to make the leap. Looking at the standings, it’s clear that was more true than people imagined. Carolina lost to Chicago on Sunday. Mighty Kansas City has lost twice in a row. Right now Philadelphia might not just be the best team in the NFL, the Eagles might be the only team we can say with confidence is good. Aaron Rodgers’ entire season is in doubt with injury. The Rams lead the NFC West. This seems like one of those strange NFL years where most teams spin their tires all year. Yet rather than taking advantage of a wide-open NFC, the Buccaneers might be the most confounding team of the bunch.
Watch the Bucs and you’ll see a team that built all offseason around their offense, but didn’t see their offense click until week 7. It’s a team whose defensive coordinator was looked at for head coaching positions last season but who cannot play defense at all on the road. They’ve lost a game because the offense was disappointing, they’ve lost a game because of a defensive no-show, and they’ve lost a game because their special teams let them down. They’ve found ways to lose from all three phases.
It doesn’t take a lot of viewing to see what is wrong with the Buccaneers’ running game: They can’t block for their backs. It seemed that Doug Martin had to dodge a defender in the backfield on every one of his twenty carries. Surprisingly, he did not lose yardage on these plays, but if the Bucs’ game plan for Martin involves him doing everything by himself without blocking it is little wonder that the run is easily abandoned.
Despite Jameis Winston’s hurt shoulder and despite never being down more than ten points, Tampa Bay used the ground game just 25 times. They averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Blame the playcalling all you want, but when the offensive line is more “turnstyle” than “brick wall” it becomes hard to gain confidence in the ground game.
The big problem for the Bucs is that every time they find they can’t run the ball, it asks Jameis Winston to win the game by himself. I know, in today’s NFL we judge quarterbacks largely by their record, but the fact of the matter is that quarterbacks cannot win games by themselves. That’s not to say Winston didn’t give it his level best.
The Buccaneers’ quarterback was 32/44 for 384 yards on the day. He threw an interception against three touchdowns, took just one sack, and showed the NFL that there is still a lot of potential in Jameis Winston.
Spreading the ball around was a problem for the Bucs earlier in the season, but not so much today. Four receivers caught five or more passes each on Sunday, the kind of performance that people had been waiting to see from Tampa Bay. That includes six receptions by O.J. Howard, the rookie tight end who had been to that point in the season more of a blocker than a passing target. Howard also had two touchdowns on the day, evidence that Dirk Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken have started to figure out how to utilize him in a good offense.
The Tampa Bay passing game was nothing short of excellent in the second half. Mike Evans had seven catches and a touchdown. Desean Jackson had five receptions for 73 yards. Cameron Brate caught six passes for 60 yards. The passing kept defenses guessing by not focusing in on any individual receiver. This led to 27 points against what had been the best scoring defense in football coming into Sunday.
Of course, when the defense plays the way it played on Sunday, even a complete offense will struggle to keep up with their opponent. The Bills came into the game with the 31st ranked offense in the league by yards gained. On Sunday, they gained 434, racked up 23 first downs, converted 10/16 third downs, and rushed for 173 yards.
The Bills got everything they wanted on offense, and some of the time it was directly because the Buccaneers gave it to them.
Creativity will unlock another level in the Buccaneers’ offense, and Sunday was proof of that. By spreading the ball around, the Bucs had the Bills’ defense grasping at straws all second half.
While Dirk Koetter’s playcalling has come under question throughout the season, keep in mind the task in front of him is gargantuan. You and I might see a deep and talented offense and think it’s simple to come up with an offense that can get all of them the touches they need, but keep in mind that football coaches are generally not creative types.
Football coaching is a brutal profession. Go out on a limb at any time and lose, and everyone blames you. Tenures don’t last long unless you work for the Rooney family, and because of that most coaches—even most of the good ones—tend to put together traditional offenses and defenses in an act of self-preservation. That’s even before you consider the path one has to take to become a coach, which involves working as a position coach and coordinator under a head coach who likely isn’t going to sign off on crazier ideas.
Most offenses in the NFL are based in concepts that are over forty years old. Hear the phrase “zone blocking” like it’s revolutionary? Vince Lombardi used to design stuff like that. “Cover two” and “Cover three” defenses are all variants on a theme popularized by Chuck Noll. Yes, Bucs fans, that includes Tony Dungy’s Tampa Two, as Dungy was a Noll protégé. The ideas Monte Kiffin brought into the NFL? He’s been implementing them for longer than I’ve been alive.
Like the vertical passing game? Don Coryell and Al Davis did too, all the way back in the sixties. The West Coast Offense is pushing 40.
Ever play the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where you have to connect actors to Kevin Bacon in less than six associations? (“____ was in ____ with ____ who was in Tremors with Kevin Bacon.”) For NFL coaching, six degrees will probably bring you to guys like George Halas. It’s a league that loathes innovation. Ask Chip Kelly if you don’t believe me.
All this is to say that Dirk Koetter might have had trouble figuring out the Bucs’ offense because, very understandably, he’s used to doing things the way football has always done things. I mentioned Kelly; he’s currently out of the league. The Bucs may need a mad scientist, but mad scientists are far more plentiful in fiction than in reality. Credit to Koetter for adapting as the season goes on.
Of course, if this is the defense behind his offense, Koetter can grow and it simply won’t matter.