The All-22: Tampa Bay must diversify schemes for quarterback success
After one full season, plus three games and a great deal of speculation, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano has moved on from quarterback Josh Freeman and gone with rookie third-rounder Mike Glennon in his place. Whether the move was made because of Freeman's inconsistent mechanics, inability to bond with Schiano, inability to show up for team photos, the simple preference for a coach to have his own guy under center, or a job-saving measure from a coaching staff, it's a done deal. Barring injury or a serious turn of thought, Freeman will never play another down for the Bucs, and he's already been lobbying for a trip out of town more actively then he was before.
"[General manager] Mark Dominik and I spent a lot of time together in some intense meetings trying to decide what’s best for our football team," Schiano said Wednesday. "We got with our ownership when we came to a conclusion as a group, we made the decision organizationally that we’re going to make a change at quarterback, and now Mike Glennon is our starting quarterback. Mark and I believe that this gives us the best chance to win today. We've lost eight of nine games and haven’t played particularly well on offense in the last nine games. That’s something that, although it isn’t completely the quarterback's fault [and] I understand that, that position touches the ball every play."
The wisdom of the move will be debated all season, but it's best to move on and look at what Glennon is dealing with. In his first regular-season NFL start, Glennon will face an Arizona Cardinals defense that currently ranks 25th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics. And according to Pro Football Focus' game-charting stats, the Cardinals' three primary cornerbacks have allowed 28 catches on 41 targets for 388 total receiving yards, 167 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, and one interception. Perhaps most atypically, cornerback Patrick Peterson has allowed a perfect quarterback rating -- 158.3 -- when in targeted coverage.
So, Glennon has that going for him, which is nice. However, he's leading and learning an offense in practice without his two primary targets -- Vincent Jackson has missed practice with a rib injury, and Mike Williams has been out with a hamstring issue. If Jackson and Williams can't go or are limited to any degree, it will be a big blow for Glennon, because this offense relies so heavily on its two big receivers -- Jackson has 15 catches this season, Williams has 11, and running back Doug Martin is third with just four catches.
This, as much as anything, is a good jump-off point for what ails the Buccaneers' offense as a complete concept, and why Glennon is jumping in with a handicap unless Schiano has a similar meeting with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and asks him to switch things up. Put simply, Tampa Bay is operating an offense that has passed the NFL's expiration date, and it's going to be tough for any quarterback to succeed within its constraints on a consistent basis. Not that Freeman isn't at fault for many of his issues -- but since this offense is Glennon's to command now, what exactly is he commanding?
When I took a look at Freeman's game in August, I got some great help from Joe Bussell (the must-follow @NFLosophy on Twitter), who worked for the Buccaneers as an Operations Assistant and Coordinator from July 2009 through January 2012. I turned to Joe again to help with a more comprehensive evaluation of Tampa Bay's offense, and the inherent issues for any quarterback.
"When watching the Buccaneers, I see an offense that appears to be ages behind the current NFL. It is evident that the Bucs' offensive staff is confident that their two main wide receivers [Jackson and Williams] will win when the ball is in the air. They try to get one-on-one matchups and run the receivers deep and outside the numbers. Separation isn't stressed in this offense. Instead, the reliance is on its outside receivers to win in jump-ball situations. These are often referred to as '50/50 balls,' because of the odds of the wide receiver coming down with them. -- and one of the reasons Freeman's completion percentage has hovered around 50 to 56 percent under Mike Sullivan.
"This is in stark contrast to the current trend in the NFL, which is to get the ball to your playmakers in space with quick throws - screens, smoke routes, and throws behind the line of scrimmage. These are high-percentage throws that allow for extra yards after the catch. In the Tampa offense, every throw is a tough throw, every catch is contested, and not much space is created -- which means the receiver is tackled immediately after making the catch. This is a major reason the Bucs currently rank 30th in yards after the catch in the NFL."
As offensive structure has become more complex in the NFL, standard operating procedure is to be anything but standard. Peyton Manning used to run three-wide, single-back sets over and over with the Indianapolis Colts, but with the Broncos, offensive coordinator Adam Gase has done a tremendous job in switching formations and allowing Manning to have more favorable looks. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy will roll everything from full-house backfields on third-and-long to five-wide receiver sets on first-and-goal -- anything to gain the advantage of numbers and angles. In Philadelphia, Chip Kelly runs a series of pass plays that seem to always have a tricky slip screen for every deep route down the numbers. And there's nobody better than New Orleans head coach Sean Payton at rolling targets around the field in ways that confound defenses and give his quarterback the tactical edge.
Against dime cluster blitzes and quarter-quarter-half disguises, simply winning the physical battles isn't enough. Sid Gillman, the father of the modern passing game, understood this in the early 1960s. Bill Walsh, who took Gillman's concepts and refined them to near-perfection in Cincinnati and San Francisco, understood this in the 1980s. And every successful offense has designers who understand it implicitly today.
Freeman's (most likely) last game with the Bucs was Sunday's 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots. Freeman completed 19 of 41 passes for 236 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. At the same time Freeman was unable to connect with Jackson and Williams, Tom Brady -- who would probably throw for 500 yards per game if he had Jackson and Williams on his roster -- found ways to connect with his own patchwork receiver corps. Why was this so? Well, set aside the fact that Brady's a pretty fair quarterback, and let's take a look at the tape.
I'll let Bussell detail the 19-yard Jackson catch with 6:31 left in the first quarter, since he tipped me off to it as an ideal example of how this kind of passing game can be successful in certain situations.
"Jackson ran a wheel route from the right slot. This throw and catch is indicative of the type of throw and catch that a quarterback and receiver must make on an iso play. The throw has to be good and away from the defender, and the receiver must go up and make a contested catch. This is a tough play to rely on, and it causes major inconsistencies. Attempting plays like this for every set of downs will leave an offense 'off schedule' and in long down and distances, especially on third down. Essentially, the offense is set up to kill its own drives."
There was also a 13-yard catch by Williams on the same drive with 5:11 left in the first quarter. This time, Freeman is left with few options due to scheme.
On this play, the Bucs go with max protect, keeping tight end Nate Byham in to block and leaving everything up to Jackson and Williams downfield. Because fullback Erik Lorig doesn't release from the formation until the play is basically set, Freeman had no targets in the middle of the field. Jackson ran an arcing out route on the right side of the field with Aqib Talib covering him, and Williams headed up the numbers on the left side with Kyle Arrington on him. There were no hot routes, no breakouts underneath, no crosses or slants. Nothing to give Freeman a quick escape hatch.
And that was a problem, because the Patriots were blitzing inside the guards. If the Buccaneers are going to use max protect to help their blockers, they'd better throw a little more sauce in the route tree. This is what Freeman saw as he hit his back foot on the dropback -- two receivers in the process of running deep breaking routes, and both tied up in iso matchups. At this point, he could either wait for Lorig to break free, or throw up a prayer to Jackson or Williams and hope there's something free when the ball lands. In this case, Williams lost Arrington on a quick break to an out route and brought in a catch for 13 yards, but one won't always see such coverage lapses.
"Both offenses were having trouble completing passes downfield and outside," Bussell recalled. "While the Buccaneers stuck to their game-plan and continued to call isolation routes on the outside with no help in the middle, the Patriots began executing crossing routes underneath and over the middle of the field. Tom Brady was content to dink and dunk down the field. New England attempted to test the back end of the defense on its first three drives, which resulted in punts after four, five, and three plays, respectively. On the fourth and fifth drives, the Patriots went 66 yards in 11 plays and 62 yards in 10 plays, respectively. Both drives went for touchdowns.
"According to Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady's average depth of target was 4.8 in this game. Josh Freeman's was 12.3. Vincent Jackson is second in the league in yards per route run. Freeman's average time to throw is 2.85 seconds, which is 11th highest in the league."
So, the question is whether the Bucs will adapt their offense for a rookie quarterback who will have limited time to get in lock-step with his elite and physical receivers in practice.
"We have a lot of work to do offensively, and that's well-documented," Sullivan said Thursday. "You can point to several reasons we haven't been as effective as we're accustomed to and what our expectations are. You can't single one person out -- there's a lot of blame from a coaching standpoint, from an execution standpoint, whether it's the other 10 players beside the quarterback. Right now, there's so much work he have to do ... the focus is on moving forward and doing everything in my power to make sure that Mike Glennon is at his best, and get the offense back performing at the level we're accustomed to."