Forget tired quarterback comparisons and watch the little things for progress
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans know the big stories. Starting quarterback Jameis Winston will miss the first three games due to a suspension. When he does return, he’ll essentially be down to his last chance. It could be Dirk Koetter’s last chance as well, as the Glazer family has demonstrated a lack of patience for rigid coaching and poor results. The pass rush looks to be much improved, but the secondary remains a concern, and the defense in general doesn’t live up to the standard of a team whose ring of honor is largely filled with defensive players.
Of course, when the Buccaneers and the Tennessee Titans are mentioned together in any way, talk centers around Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. The two quarterbacks came up in the same draft, and will therefore be compared endlessly despite being two entirely different kinds of players in very different situations. This is nothing but a narrative and should take up precisely none of a football fan’s precious time.
With football, it’s just as often that the little things in a game will cost teams games than the big issues do. One can look at the 2017 Bucs’ 5-11 campaign as the result of some big plans falling short. It can also be looked at as a series of missed kicks, missed opportunities, failed conversions, and so many other seemingly-small issues that came back to bite the Buccaneers in a bad place.
Some little things to watch on Saturday night as the Buccaneers play the Titans:
1: Short yardage situations
This takes two different forms: The Buccaneers’ inability to convert red zone appearances into touchdowns, and the Buccaneers’ lack of creativity on second, third, and fourth and short.
Those “and short” situations are critical. First downs stretch the field, change field position, keep defenses on the field longer, and of course give teams more wiggle room. They are also an area where Tampa Bay has struggled in recent years, so often going to power runs up the middle to try and muscle those last couple of yards by force.
In 2017, this strategy problematically seemed to confuse Doug Martin with Mike Alstott, which worked out about as well as one would expect. Opponents loaded up along the line and stopped Martin as a matter of routine. Late in the season, Peyton Barber had slightly more success in the same situations, but opponents still could see the run between the tackles coming from a mile away.
Improved running back and offensive line play would change Tampa Bay’s success rate in these short situations, but shedding that predictability could send their offense to the new heights they expected when they decided to build their team around an offense-minded coach.
On Monday, the Buccaneers worked on that specific third and 1 situation. For the most part, they worked on it by practicing their power run setup, the kind of play George Halas would love.
“It only comes up about 1% of all your playcalls,” said coach Dirk Koetter on Monday, “but obviously that 1% is very important.” Those plays are the difference between going for a touchdown and settling for a field goal. Those plays, done incorrectly, make punters like Bryan Anger serious team-MVP candidates. Done correctly, they wear out defenses and they instill confidence in an offense.
Buccaneers fans know this well. In the late nineties and early 2000s, when the team was great but the offense wasn’t, they were able to extend drives because they had a human battering ram in Mike Alstott. Even with offenses led by the likes of Shaun King, those Bucs were able to get the ball downfield largely because they had a go-to successful move on second and 1, third and 1, third and goal, and the like. Likewise, later Buccaneers offenses objectively more talented than any of those that kept the A-Train running on time have been known to trade in touchdowns, settle for field goal attempts, and settle for punts.
It could be that at least some part of the Buccaneers’ kicking woes of recent years stem from a team that puts the ball on the placekicker’s foot far too often. Tampa Bay is not a friendly environment to the kicker these days.
The red zone issue is much simpler to solve. Tampa Bay has enough passing targets that they should be able to confuse defenses and get people open in the red zone with little trouble. It all comes down, then, to the offensive line. Give Buccaneers quarterbacks time, and they will find open players in the shadow of the goalposts. If the passers do not get enough time, expect the Bucs to have to settle for field goals.
2: Special teams
Special teams might be the most important part of football that people don’t talk about. The kicking game gets a little bit of discussion, but usually this is only when a kicker is noticeably bad. Punt returners are only important when they’re on the highest level. Punters, well, nobody likes to talk about punters.
At the same time, field position can be of critical importance in a close game. The difference between making and missing a field goal can change a game. It was a punt returner who inspired Dennis Green’s famous “they are who we thought they were” rant.
The Kansas City Chiefs always seem slightly better than the sum of their parts, and a lot of it has to do with their ability to flip a field and their reliable kicking game.
Of course, the kicking game has not been strong in Tampa Bay since Matt Bryant was making game-ending kicks from 62 yards out. Chandler Catanzaro is the latest kicker to be thrown into the fire, and in practice he has looked reliable. He also missed the very first extra point he attempted in a Buccaneers uniform last week.
Bryan Anger was one of the Buccaneers’ best three players last year, which says a lot about both his punting and the state of the 2017 Bucs.
In the return game, Adam Humphries has been reliable at catching punts, but offers little in the way of game-changing returns. DeSean Jackson has been practicing with the punt team, and was earlier in his career one of the best return men in the game, but he also has been away from special teams for a while. Chris Godwin has what looks like an ideal skillset for a punt returner, but he wasn’t used that way in college and would have to learn what is effectively a new position.
Turning special teams from a negative to a positive could change a lot in Tampa Bay. Consider how much different the Buccaneers’ season last year might have been with reliable kicking early in the season. How much easier could it make Ryan Fitzpatrick’s life if the punt returner routinely gave the Bucs a short field to work with? Could Tampa Bay take more chances on third and short if they feel more confident in their kicker?
3: Adapting to rule changes
Much has been made of the officials and their calls in the first week of preseason. More penalties for hits are said to be killing football and taking defense out of the game, which are big claims for a new policy that has been refined over exactly one week of preseason football.
What is often missed in discussions of changing rules is that new rules create new opportunities for forward-thinking football teams. The first team to realize what advantages are given to them in a league where proper tackling is changing by the season is going to win some games because of it.
Likewise, the defensive coordinator who is able to adjust and change his team’s plans on the fly to avoid unnecessary penalties could find himself and his defense in the Super Bowl.
It’s worth wondering if these new rules about hits are opening doors for the ballhawking defensive back less concerned with the player than the pass intended for him. It’s equally worthy of wonder how a defensive player makes an open field tackle on a large tight end like Rob Gronkowski or, say, O.J. Howard in this new paradigm. Did these new rules just make a power runner into one of the NFL’s most important weapons?
This, almost as much as player development, is what can be learned from a careful viewing of these preseason games. Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith are going to need to pay close attention to when flags are thrown and why, so that they can plan around it before their competitors do.