How the Bucs Got Going

An offense re-worked up front and a defense thriving in the back have resulted in three straight wins for Tampa Bay, including back-to-back wins over two of the NFL’s best teams
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Something strange happened two weeks ago in Tampa Bay: The Bucs offensive line was utterly dominated by Chicago’s pass rushers. Yet the Bucs won 36-10.

Recognizing the blowout victory as odd, maybe even aberrational, head coach Dirk Koetter adjusted his offensive approach for the team’s surprise win the following week at Kansas City. Koetter committed to using chip-blockers to help offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson.

Offensive architects can be reluctant to use chip-blockers for one simple reason: It prevents you from getting all five eligible receivers out into routes quickly. But that’s less of a problem in Koetter’s scheme, which is balanced by a smashmouth style ground game and, more importantly, is predicated on deep-intermediate pass patterns off five- and seven-step dropbacks. Those passes take extra time to unfold, which means underneath receivers can get into their routes later. And so you can afford to use those underneath receivers as chip-blockers. In fact, often, it actually helps your play’s timing and geometry.

The obvious benefit to chip-blocking is your pass protection improves. But just as important, your quarterback knows the protection will improve, and so he plays calmer in the pocket. That’s what we saw from Jameis Winston last week at Kansas City. Winston started that game with, from a fundamental quarterbacking standpoint, the best three-drive sequence of his young career. Remarkably, he may have topped it on Sunday with the two drives he had to begin the upset win over Seattle. (Both ended in Mike Evans touchdowns.) What has stood out is Winston’s timing and anticipation—traits that are made possible by his comfort in the pocket.

There’s just one caveat: Winston’s high level of play did not hold up for all four quarters in either of the last two weeks. Though overall he still gave a tremendous performance against the Chiefs, Winston struggled a few times with precision accuracy in the second half. Against Seattle, he had bouts of poor decision-making, none worse than his end zone interception to Kam Chancellor late in the fourth quarter. At the time, the Bucs were up nine and in field goal range, and were facing a third-and-18. Winston couldn’t have picked a worse time to force an (inaccurate) ball to a blanketed Evans.

On the play before the interception, Winston had zipped a zone coverage-beating 10-yard touchdown to Cameron Brate. But the euphoria from what appeared to be the win-sealing score was dashed by a flag against Dotson for illegal hands to the face (Cliff Avril’s). Salting the wound was the fact that Dotson’s violation had no impact on the touchdown throw. (Oh, and naturally, it occurred on one of the few plays where Dotson did not have chip-block help.) Winston almost certainly was still riding the momentum of that negated touchdown when he made the boneheaded decision on the ensuing third-and-18 play.

This is the double-edged sword you get with Winston. But fortunately the good edge of that sword is larger and sharper than the bad. Still, there’s a chance people would be focusing more on that bad edge if not for Tampa Bay’s defense. During this Bucs three-game winning streak, it has allowed just 10.7 points an outing while also forcing nine turnovers. On Sunday this D sacked Russell Wilson six times and held Seattle to 118 net yards passing (and just one net yard in the first half).

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The defensive front four always gets the credit in these scenarios, though in Tampa Bay, it starts with the back seven. Several of Sunday’s sacks came on plays when Wilson felt he had to hold the ball at the top of his dropback. This included some three-step dropbacks, when holding the ball will almost always result in a sack. Those play stemmed from good coverage by the linebackers and shallow safety.

Indeed, the Bucs, who predominantly play single-high zone (aka Cover 3) have been terrific with their spacing and communication on the back end. That’s critical because, as individual entities, Tampa Bay’s defensive backs have flaws. Brent Grimes, though playing very well as of late, is old and small. Vernon Hargreaves, though playing better in the second half of his rookie season, is still learning on the job. Safety Chris Conte struggles in space, in both coverage and especially run support. Fellow safety Bradley McDougald is a sturdy run defender but can be hit-or-miss against the pass. (Against Seattle, incidentally, he was almost all hit, both figuratively and, considering his wood-laying on Tyler Lockett to stop a third-and-10 play, literally.)

But one of the main points of zone coverage is that it emphasizes collective group work, hiding defenders’ individual flaws. The Bucs as a group have lately been outstanding.

Maintaining this won’t be easy. The Bucs’ remaining five games are against teams with dangerous aerial attacks: San Diego, New Orleans (twice), Dallas and Carolina. Not coincidentally, those are all teams whose quarterbacks can be difficult to sack. Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, always keen on their reads, get the ball out on time. Brees also benefits from the same chip-block concepts that have helped Winston. Dak Prescott plays behind an impermeable offensive line. Cam Newton does not, but the Panthers are one of the few teams willing to commit even further to pass protection than Tampa Bay; instead of chipping with two eligible receivers, they’ll keep one, or even both, in as fulltime blockers. The Bucs pass rush, productive as it was against Seattle, is not overflowing with talent.

It will be fascinating to see whether the Bucs, now 6-5 and one game behind Atlanta in the NFC South, can continue their surge. Because what we’re really talking about with the commitment to chip-blocking and sound zone coverage is a team just working together to hide its weaknesses.

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