The NFL can be a fickle business, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the latest reminder of just that.
Everything was looking dandy entering November. Bruce Arians’ team were being eulogised as a playoff-bound juggernaut led by a Tom Brady sticking it to Father Time, and with a suffocating Todd Bowles defence taking names at the line scrimmage.
Two weeks later, and the Bucs are licking the wounds of a 38-3 demolition at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, having just about escaped East Rutherford with a 25-23 win over the New York Giants earlier in the week.
The performance against the Saints was as ugly as it was ever going to get, and one Arians will be hoping proves a mere anomaly.
Winning in the trenches
Brady threw three interceptions against the Saints as he endured the worst loss of his career.
Brady’s success in Tampa is, and always was, reliant on the offensive line ensuring him time to work in the pocket. A few years ago, he might have been able to gloss over poor pass protection, but at 43 years old and in his first season with a new offence – one stacked with elite receiving options all seeking touches – the added time and space is needed.
Brady’s 40.4 season-low passer rating came in the face of a season-high 46 per cent pressure rate from the Saints, surpassing his previous low mark set in Week One when he had a rating of 78 against a 25 per cent pressure rate – again courtesy of the New Orleans defence.
In inflicting the Bucs’ other defeat this season, the Chicago Bears finished with a 22.7 per cent pressure rate that resulted in Brady recording an 86 passer rating. In contrast, Tampa Bay wins over the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos saw Brady face pressure ratings of below 15 per cent, while those over the Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders all had pressure rates under nine per cent.
Brady made bad throws against the Saints, there’s no denying that. The Marcus Davenport-bat-turned-David Onyemata interception on a screen pass intended for Ronald Jones was sloppy, while the pick on a sideline pass intended for Antonio Brown was both miscommunication and shrewd design from the Saints secondary. The third, on fourth-and-seven, was a not-so-Brady-like blind prayer lofted into danger after he was forced to scramble from a collapsing pocket.
The Saints burrowed their way to Brady all night, with porous protection becoming a catalyst for defects across the entire offence as Brady lacked the time to attack deep routes, particularly where an underused Mike Evans was concerned.
Brady was zero of five on passes of at least 20 air yards and eight of 15 on passes of at least 10 air yards, according to ESPN Stats.
Heading into the recent Monday Night Football against the Giants, Brady’s deep pass rate had ranked fourth in the NFL and was the highest it had ever been in the Next Gen Stats era since 2016. His passer rating when targeting ‘go routes’ was fourth-highest, and his 2,289 intended air yards fourth most. You wouldn’t have known based on Sunday’s loss.
The Bucs ran the ball five times against the Saints. Four if you don’t count Blaine Gabbert taking a knee at the end of the game – a record-low mark in an NFL game.
Between Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, whose head coaching credentials were chipped on Sunday, the Bucs seemed to desert the ground game at 21-0 down in the second quarter, after which Leonard Fournette accounted for the only other carry besides Jones’ three and Gabbert’s touch.
As smooth as Brady has been, the offence has looked its most convincing when it has run the ball effectively, whether it be Fournette’s 103 rushing yards for two scores in the Week Two win over the Panthers or Jones’ 113-yard, two-touchdown game against the Packers.
The pair were instead targeted 10 times between them in the passing game as restrictive play-calling from Leftwich and constant pressure on Brady saw open receivers neglected downfield.
“Offensively, we got out of that game plan so fast, I felt terrible for the left side of the line because there was no threat of the run,” said Arians.
“I thought we had a really good plan for the running game, but when you go down 21-0, we tried to jumpstart it with the two-minute drive just to get something going. It just didn’t work.”
Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, speaking on Pro Football Talk, thinks the addition of Brown to the offence contributed to Tampa’s problems.
“He [Arians] can talk about having to get into ‘two-minute’ offence early in the game, but it started out with Brown on the field, in three-receiver sets,” Simms said.
“They lined up as if it was, ‘we’ve got Antonio Brown, you can’t match up with us, we’re going to throw it every play’.
“They got infatuated with the thought of it. And what did it lead to? The offence never got in rhythm, and the offensive line never established any physicality or control of the line of scrimmage.
“In the best games we’ve seen all year from Tampa Bay, it has been a pretty balanced attack – not always a 100-yard rusher, but somebody flirting with those types of numbers.
“That’s then when Brady has really struck downfield with big passes – the 30, 40-yard chunk plays.”
Rob Gronkowski had just one catch from six targets, Brown had three from five for 31 yards and Chris Godwin three of six for 41 yards.
Evans was targeted just once in the first half out of six in total as he finished with four catches for 64 yards to make it five games without 100 yards receiving. Scotty Miller, who has emerged as a favourite of Brady, was also nowhere to be seen with one catch for 10 yards from three targets.
“Mike [Evans] was open a bunch in that ball game, he just didn’t get targeted – but he was open,” said Arians, perhaps pointedly at Brady.
Arians has pointed to flexibility as the Bucs’ desired identity on offence. While the intentions may have been there, the execution certainly wasn’t.
Brady said after the chastening defeat: “When things don’t go your way, you’ve got to figure out how to stop it and turn it around.
“We’ve got to learn from it, hopefully we can and be better next week. We’re going to get back to work.”
Defensive importance shows
The Bucs have been a nightmare matchup on defence for most schemes so far this season, Bowles’ unit flying all over the field while throttling offensive lineman up front.
But when their usually-unrelenting pass rush failed to put pressure on Drew Brees, the result was the exposure of a young and still-teething secondary.
The Bucs had just one sack and three quarterback hits against the Saints, their efforts to improve admittedly not aided by the inevitable fatigue stemming from their offence’s inability to string together sustained drives.
“What jumped out to me more than anything was the way Tampa played on defence – their style – they were not aggressive, not in your face, a kind of ‘bend, don’t break’ style,” added Simms.
“That, to me, against Brees and Sean Payton is just a deadly combo – they’re going to pick you apart.”
Carlton Davis missed a tackle on Deonte Harris that led to a 40-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter, before Jamal Dean was found wanting on Emmanuel Sanders’ 14-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter after Taysom Hill had been allowed the space to make a 21-yard reception earlier in the drive.
Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting were both also guilty of miscommunication on a blown coverage resulting in wide-open Tre’Quan Smith making a 14-yard touchdown catch on the opening drive, via some neat footwork to stay in the end zone.
Even linebacker Lavonte David, a star of this Bucs defence in 2020, was beaten out by Adam Trautman for a seven-yard score and later left in his wake by Josh Hill for a three-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It was a day when everything important to this Bucs machine faltered, which must be said was also partly down to a very accomplished Saints performance. It was also a reminder that protecting Brady is essential to this thing working out.
Concerns, yes, but still not enough to dismiss this team’s ability to threaten come January.
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