- The Bucs feature an improved pass rush, a great pair of tight ends and a lot of questions
With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished 5–11 in 2017.
1. Bigger names than ex-Giant Jason Pierre-Paul and ex-Eagle Vinny Curry changed teams this offseason. But few, if any, will mean as much to their new clubs. Last year a feckless pass rush left the Bucs with a league-low 22 sacks and the NFL’s 32nd ranked pass defense. Coordinator Mike Smith’s classic two-deep zones simply had no chance. True, Pierre-Paul and Curry are not saviors. In fact, they were available because they didn’t quite have the edge-bending prowess to justify big salaries on their old teams. But as gifted lateral movers and sound technicians, they can be highly effective on designer four-man rush tactics, like stunts, slants and twists, where they attack blockers at angles and create pass rush lanes for others. Smith must employ these more than he did in 2017.
When you factor in the interior, it’s possible Tampa Bay’s D-line will morph from a glaring weakness into this team’s greatest strength. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is still a dynamo. First-round rookie Vita Vea is expected to fortify the nose tackle spot when his injured calf heals. End Noah Spence, back from a shoulder injury, is looking to recapture the speed he developed in the second half of his 2016 rookie season. Ex-Eagle Beau Allen and especially ex-Bear Mitch Unrein provide outstanding run-stuffing depth. The personnel is in place to create more of the 3rd-and-long situations to capitalize on a still-average, but wildly upgraded, pass rush.
2. The downside of running a pure zone defense like Tampa Bay’s is that an offense can easily dictate matchups through formationing. In the most reductive terms, all the offense must do is put its best wide receiver inside of another receiver and run them on vertical routes. That best wideout will be one-on-one against a safety. Offenses last year did this ruthlessly against Chris Conte and Justin Evans. It’s critical a zone defense’s four-man rush gets home before these mismatches can unfold.
3. Linebackers Kwon Alexander and especially Lavonte David are sensational run defenders. They have sideline to sideline speed but, more importantly, they play downhill, aggressively attacking blockers who try to double-team a Bucs D-lineman.
4. Last year’s third-round pick Kendell Beckwith, who is still getting over an April ankle fracture, had a nice rookie season, but it’s hard to see where he fits moving forward. He played a lot at defensive end last November and December, but that said more about Tampa Bay’s front four than him. Beckwith’s NFL future is at linebacker, but unless he pushes Alexander or David out of nickel packages (highly unlikely), he’ll be constricted to playing in base situations, which means 15-20 snaps a game.
5. Vernon Hargreaves has shown the raw talent that got him drafted 11th overall in 2016. But he’s also shown enough callowness for GM Jason Licht to spend a pair of second-round picks on corners M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis. This could be a make-or-break year for Hargreaves, who has good feet and enough spatial awareness to play outside or in the slot. But that awareness needs to apply on every snap. Hargreaves blew too many assignments last season and his wavering confidence was revealed by the amount of coverage cushion he applied.
6. Besides needing to mature off the field, Jameis Winston still has much growing to do on it. He has a rich understanding of defenses, but that, mixed with one of the league’s stronger arms, has caused him to take too many chances. If a coverage is 90 percent sound and 10 percent vulnerable, too often Winston goes after that 10 percent. He can be especially reckless when plays break down. If this doesn’t get corrected, Winston won’t be here in 2019.
7. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will fill in while Winston serves his three-game suspension to start the season, also has a reputation for recklessness. It should be noted, however, that in his 4 ½ games last season, Fitzpatrick mostly operated within himself. His accuracy could still be erratic, and he’ll always play with a caffeinated energy. But head coach Dirk Koetter can trust his 35-year-old backup with the entire playbook.
8. DeSean Jackson had just 10 catches over 20 yards last season, which ranked 37th in the NFL. That’s unacceptable for a player with his skill set in a system built on deep corner, post and dig routes. Jackson is 31 but can still run. And as long as he’s across from superstar Mike Evans, he’ll see no more than the second most challenging aspect of every defense’s coverage. Jackson should be at least an 800-1,000-yard receiver in 2018.
9. A deep dropback passing game like Tampa Bay’s naturally comes out of running formations. That should make it easier to incorporate designs featuring tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard together. The NFL might not have a more gifted 1-2 tight end receiving punch. This position overall has been statistically strong for Tampa Bay, but there are still many more benefits for this offense to reap.
10. It was obvious Koetter didn’t fully trust his running game in 2017—which explains the signing of free agent center Ryan Jensen, who got $22 million guaranteed after a stellar campaign in Baltimore. His arrival pushes Ali Marpet back to his more natural guard position, strengthening two of the three interior O-line spots. Actually, make that all three spots since third-round rookie Alex Cappa should beat out Caleb Benenoch for the other guard job. With a potentially imposing O-line and the addition of second-round rookie tailback Ronald Jones, the Bucs have the personnel to employ the black-and-blue ground game that Koetter’s scheme demands.
BOTTOM LINE: Pick a record, any record. With both coach and quarterback on the hot seat and having had so many weaknesses to address, 3-13 is not hard to imagine. But neither is 11-5 if Winston and Koetter find the sweet spot they’ve touched on before.
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