It's no secret that a 7-5 record and two-game losing streak entering the month of December isn't what Tampa Bay Buccaneers' general manager Jason Licht had in mind when he signed future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to a two year, $50 million, fully guaranteed contract this past offseason.
No, it isn't time to panic yet. The Buccaneers still hold the No. 6 seed and No. 2 Wild Card spot in the current NFC Playoff Picture. The Bucs also finish their season with games against the Minnesota Vikings (5-6), Detroit Lions (4-7), and two against the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) - combining for a .394 winning percentage.
However, the Bucs can treat no game lightly and have issues to correct within the bye week to soundly defeat these squads and roll into the playoffs with momentum. Below, you can find three things head coach Bruce Arians and company should look to achieve.
Stay true to the run game
The Buccaneers' running game has been maddeningly inconsistent. How many NFL running backs are rushing for 192 yards one week, but nine on three carries the week before and 24 yards on ten carries the week after?
Such is life for Ronald Jones II, who stands at No. 4 in the NFL in total rushing yards this year despite such inconsistent usage.
Arians has attributed this to early deficits forcing the Bucs to pass, but could it be Tampa is simply giving up on the run too early? Against the Chiefs, "RoJo" had four first quarter carries in 13 total plays by the Bucs' offense and the team finished the quarter scoreless, down 17, maxing out at four plays on one of their four drives. Similar things can be said about the Saints game as Jones took three attempts for 17 yards in the first quarter although one was called back for holding. He received just one more carry the entire game.
Even though the Bucs lost to the Rams, Jones had six carries across the two first quarter drives in that game, and the Bucs exited the second drive with touchdown and a tie of the lead. It took Jones a second to get into a rhythm, but he seemed to find some on the second drive at 4.3 yards per carry on three attempts.
Will Jones solve all of Tampa Bay's issues? No. But he's shown that he can produce once he gets flowing. Tampa has to give him that opportunity more often, which is sure to open up the pass compared to when its forced.
Arians, Leftwich, and Brady must get back in sync
Everyone is trying to find out why Tom Brady and Bruce Arians aren't living up to the hype as a QB/offensive-minded HC duo that was created this past offseason. Maybe that should have been expected given such a unique offseason, and perhaps the current doubts are overblown, however, there are issues at hand.
Up until this past Saturday, Brady had thrown 19 straight incompletions of passes traveling 20 or more yards, the vertical game being a staple of Arians' coaching philosophy. Brady hit four-of-eight deep passes against the Chiefs, after missing a few to begin the game while the Chiefs took an early lead.
There have been open receivers going deep all year, but connecting and timing on such throws went cold for some time. Brady is 43 years old, not getting any younger, and naturally doesn't have the arm he used to to regularly connect on these. The Bucs must adapt.
An uptick in early rushing attempts as mentioned previously, which the Bucs can continue to do from 11 and 12-personnel with tight ends as blockers and on release routes, should create room for more play action and methodical drives. Defenses are expecting Brady to try to beat them right now, putting pressure on the QB and forcing even short throws off rhythm, much less taking away deep shots.
Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich continuing to depend on Brady against these looks will force the Bucs to keep playing from behind, and into mistakes (Brady has seven interceptions in his last four games, and four in his first eight contests). That just isn't a recipe for success at this point in his career, and this team is built with enough firepower to take early leads with better scripts.
Figure out how to slow down up-tempo passing attacks
In the three games we've covered since relaunching AllBucs.com, the Buccaneers have been flat-out miserable defending the pass to begin games. While it mattered little against Carolina, Brady and Co. were forced to fight the Bucs' way back into games against Los Angeles and Kansas City in large part due to this issue, to no avail.
Arians shared on Monday that the pass rush needs to do a better job of getting home when the Bucs are in man coverage. While Patrick Mahomes is one of a kind at handling pressure, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff and at times Carolina Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater were also unfazed by the Bucs' defensive front. Goff went 21-of-25 for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against the Bucs on Nov. 23, while Bridgewater began his day 13-of-13 for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Tampa Bay on Nov. 15.
Drew Brees went 26-of-32 for 222 yards and four touchdowns in four quarters against the Buccaneers on Nov. 8 in what ended as a 38-3 loss for Arians' squad.
Tampa Bay's pass defense had been a middle-of-the-pack unit all season long until recently, and now it stands at No. 24 in NFL rankings. Offenses are going full-throttle to begin games and develop a scoring rhythm which the Bucs have shown they aren't always capable of keeping up with.
That has to change if Tampa Bay wants any shot at contending in the postseason, and more talent will have to be acquired on the backend when the offseason rolls around. Seattle and Green Bay, two teams ahead of Tampa Bay in the NFC playoff picture, own top six passing defenses in the league. While Tampa held the Packers to ten points earlier this season, it's hard to bet on another performance like that from the Bucs' defense against Aaron Rodgers right now.