Buccaneers-Saints All-22: Sooooo, about that offense ...

Tampa Bay’s once-vaunted passing attack went missing Sunday, but don’t point the finger at Jameis Winston. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Saints defensive backs broke up four of the passes intended for Bucs receiver Chris Godwin on Sunday. [Associated Press]
Saints defensive backs broke up four of the passes intended for Bucs receiver Chris Godwin on Sunday. [Associated Press]
Published December 12 2018
Updated December 13 2018

After Cameron Brate’s touchdown gave the Buccaneers a 14-3 lead at the end of the first half Sunday, the Saints racked up 25 unanswered points. In that span, Jameis Winston completed as many passes — three — as New Orleans scored touchdowns.

Where did the offense go?

If you scan the play-by-play log, there’s no question that Winston struggled in the second half. Remove the Bucs’ final drive — the game was out of reach by then — and he completed 3 of 12 passes for 34 yards. Though he wasn’t sharp, he wasn’t solely to blame for the offense’s disappearing act.

One reason for the lack of production: Winston’s and DeSean Jackson’s inability to connect.

Oh, excuse me.

Jackson didn’t play Sunday. Chris Godwin did.

Not that there was much of a difference.

Godwin saw a team-high 10 targets. He caught only one.

That seems bad. How bad? Historically bad.

Football Outsiders quantifies such things, and according to the website’s calculations, Godwin’s game was the worst a receiver has had in the past 30 years. His performance was 84 yards worse than what you would expect from a replacement-level receiver.

Not all of Winston’s passes to Godwin were catchable, however. The Saints broke up several. Winston overthrew a couple. Godwin was only wide open twice. He caught one, but the other hit the ground several yards in front of him, possibly because a Saints defender hit Winston as he threw.

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After watching the All-22 coaches film, a few issues jumped out to me. The first was Bucs receivers’ inability to separate from defenders — Godwin in particular. Godwin gained only 1.7 yards of separation on his targets, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Godwin’s season average is 2.6 yards, which is higher than Mike Evans’ (2.1) but slightly lower than Jackson’s (2.8).

On a first and 10 early in the second quarter, Godwin had half a step on cornerback Eli Apple, but Winston’s throw was just out of his reach. It’d be a bit nit picky to suggest that Winston should have hit Godwin; Apple’s coverage was tight and left Winston no margin for error. He threw the ball where only Godwin could have gotten it.

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On a second and 3 in the same drive, Winston rolled to the right and targeted Godwin over the middle. His throw could not have been better. Godwin, covered by Marshon Lattimore, could not hold on.

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The Saints defense smothered Bucs receivers all afternoon, and consequently Winston held on to the ball longer than usual. He went from having one of the quickest releases a week earlier (2.5 seconds) to one of the longest releases (3.1 seconds). Though Winston often excels when he extends plays, Sunday was an exception. When he released the ball in less than 2.5 seconds, he completed 10 of 15 passes, two of which resulted in touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. When he held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, he completed only 8 of 23 passes.

In general, Winston has been a more efficient passer on longer-developing plays. Over the first 12 games this season, he had an 89.3 rating when throwing passes in less than 2.5 seconds and a 105.1 rating when throwing passes after 2.5 seconds. You could attribute some of the dropoff Sunday to indecision on Winston’s part, but my view after watching the film is that a lack of open throwing lanes was the bigger culprit.

RELATED STORY: By playing not to lose, the Bucs lost to the Saints anyway

It didn’t help that the Bucs often were in unfavorable third-down situations because of their ineffectiveness on early downs. They called 14 plays on third down and needed at least 8 yards for a first-down conversion on 10 of them.

Penalties were partly to blame for that, but so was their run game. Though Tampa Bay sought to maintain a balance between runs and passes, that commitment provided little benefit. Take, for instance, a second-and-5 run in the first quarter. Saints defensive end Alex Okafor slipped through the gap between left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet to trip up Peyton Barber for a 3-yard loss. After an incompletion on third down, the Bucs punted.

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Such losses have been commonplace — far too commonplace at this point in the season — and it’s more of an offensive line problem than a running back problem. Bucs running backs have been stuffed (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) on 26.2 percent of their runs this season. Only the Falcons have been stuffed more often (26.5 percent).

Barber leads the team in rushing yards with 677, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that he has had to scratch and claw for most of them. You remember his epic 2-yard run against the Browns, don’t you? The one in which he had to drag a linebacker several yards just to avoid a loss?

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Of his 677 yards, Barber has gained almost 500 after contact (73.6 percent). Ezekiel Elliott’s percentage of yards after contact? 66.6 percent. Todd Gurley’s? 63.5 percent. Saquon Barkley’s? 63.3 percent.

Tampa Bay’s stable of running backs isn’t blameless.

“It wasn’t just the O-line,” coach Dirk Koetter said about Sunday’s loss. “A couple times, we had wide receivers on perimeter blocks where Peyton was going to bounce it, and it still ended up being a 4 or 5-yard gain. Those could be 8 to 10-yard gains. A couple times, Peyton didn’t read the hole very good. We had a couple players blocked and he tried to take it somewhere else.”

True, but ask yourself this: How much more success do you think Elliott, Gurley and Barkley would have behind this line? What about Adrian Peterson? Le’Veon Bell?

Enough to make this a playoff team?

The Bucs can’t fix the run game. Not now. The pass game? Its struggles Sunday were more likely an aberration, but with the tough Ravens and Cowboys defenses on tap, the offense might sputter a little while longer.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, NFL Next Gen Stats, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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