"They just pulled me. I was gassed."
That was Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans explaining why he didn't play in the second half of the 2014 season finale.
The 2-13 Bucs, who led the New Orleans Saints 20-7 at halftime, had everything to lose by winning that game and everything to win by losing. So they pulled their starters and tanked.
"In the second half, we wanted to look at some more football players," coach Lovie Smith said after the 23-20 loss that really was a win. "I don't think that's out of the realm of possibility, to look at some guys."
Smith and general manager Jason Licht, the proud owners of the 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick, wanted to look at some guys all right, specifically the two who were playing in the Rose Bowl a few days later — Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
Although the 6-8 Bucs have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention this season, don't count on them prioritizing draft position during the final two weeks.
"There's a two-game part of the season, we're going to take a long break, but we want to show everybody what we are going to be next year," Smith said Monday. "That's how we are handling this. For us, we're also going to finish up the season with the best team in football playing right now, so there's a lot for us to do these last couple (of games)."
Among the things on the Bucs' to-do list:
• Beat the Chicago Bears Sunday and put themselves in position to finish 8-8 and end a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. At this point, there would be no better way to finish the season than by knocking off a Carolina Panthers team that might be 15-0 heading into Week 17.
• Build Winston's case for offensive rookie of the year. He would be the third Buccaneer to win the award and first since Cadillac Williams in 2005.
• Help Doug Martin secure the league rushing title, something no Buccaneer running back has ever done. He is just 9 yards behind Adrian Peterson but is outpacing him, averaging 5.1 yards per carry to Peterson's 4.6.
If Martin is to pass Peterson, this weekend will be the time to make a move, as the Bears are the NFL's weakest defense against the run, according to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric. They're allowing 125.9 yards per game, seventh-most in the league, and 4.6 yards per carry, fifth-most.
While the Bucs have had success running the ball in any direction, they'll want to favor play calls to the right. When teams run to the right tackle, the Bears are allowing 6.1 yards per carry. When teams run to the right end, the Bears are allowing 6.2. In both cases, they rank 30th.
|Left end||Left tackle||Middle/guard||Right tackle||Right end|
|Bucs rushing offense||6.8 (6th)||4.3 (12th)||4.7*||5.1 (10th)||5.5 (9th)|
|Bears rushing defense||4.8 (10th)||4.6 (26th)||3.9*||6.1 (30th)||6.2 (30th)|
(* The NFL further categorizes runs to the middle as "left guard," "up the middle" and "right guard," but Football Outsiders research says there is no statistically significant difference between how well a team performs on runs categorized as "left guard," "up the middle" and "right guard." In this table, I've lumped those runs together under "middle/guard.")
In pass coverage, the Bears' soft spot is the short middle ("short," as NFL play-by-play defines it, is a pass under 15 yards). They've allowed a 73.6 completion percentage on such passes, which ranks 24th, and allowed an average gain of 10.6 yards, most in the league. The Bucs have gained 9.0 yards per short pass over the middle, most in the league.
The Bears have been especially vulnerable of late to shallow crossing routes. The Minnesota Vikings used those routes to great effect on a game-defining third-quarter drive Sunday. Let's go to the All-22 coaches film for a closer look.
First, some background: The Vikings defense opened the second half with a strip-sack of Jay Cutler at midfield and were poised to build on a 17-7 lead. The Bears stopped Jerick McKinnon for no gain on first down, and Teddy Bridgewater gained 3 yards on a scramble on second down to set up third-and-7.
The Vikings come to the line with two receivers on Bridgewater's left and tight end Kyle Rudolph and receiver Jarius Wright on his right. The Vikings stack Rudolph and Wright, with Rudolph on the line of scrimmage and Wright 2 yards behind him. If the Bears play man-to-man, this will give Wright a clean release and some momentum on his shallow crossing route. It's also important that Wright gets a clean break in the event Bridgewater is under pressure and needs an outlet.
The Bears show a double A gap blitz (the A gaps are the lanes between the center and guards), a tactic defenses employ to create confusion and miscommunication among blockers and to force the quarterback to make a rash decision.
The linebackers execute a twist, and while the running back picks up one of the linebackers, the other linebacker beats the center. Bridgewater has to throw quickly.
Fortunately for Bridgewater, Wright is open as he crosses over the middle. There are three reasons why: 1.) The stack gives him a clean release. 2.) Kyle Fuller, the cornerback covering him, is 10 yards away before the snap and can't close in quickly enough. 3.) The linebacker Wright is about to cross in front of is monitoring the routes on the left side of the field.
With the linebacker in his face, Bridgewater hits Wright in stride, and the Vikings pick up 15 yards and the first down.
Three plays later, on another third down, the Vikings go back to the crossing route. This time, Stefon Diggs goes 33 yards for the game-sealing touchdown.
Why is Diggs so wide open? The Vikings clear out space underneath on the right side of the field by having Mike Wallace, the receiver out wide to the right, and Wright, the receiver lined up next to the right tackle, run deep vertical routes. Rudolph, lined up in the slot between them, runs a shallow crossing route to the left side, while Diggs, lined up out wide to the left, runs a shallow crossing route to the right side.
Tracy Porter, the cornerback who initially covers Diggs, identifies the routes and passes off Diggs and expects to pick up Rudolph. But Alan Ball, the cornerback who initially covers Rudolph, is late to pick up Diggs, leaving him alone in space.
These kinds of throws were there all game long for Bridgewater, who threw a career-high four touchdown passes. He attempted only two passes of 10 yards or more, and 176 of his 231 yards came after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
2014 Jay Cutler vs. 2015 Jay Cutler
Although Cutler threw an ugly interception to a Vikings defensive end Sunday, his interception rate is down significantly this season (1.8 percent) compared with last season (3.2). If he maintains this pace, he might finish a season with twice as many touchdown passes as picks for the first time in his career.
|Comp %||Yards/game||Yards/att||TD||INT||QB rating||QBR||DVOA|
The Bucs, meanwhile, are starving for takeaways. They've gone without one for two straight games and in three of the past four.
One reason for Cutler's success is the Bears' reliance on low-risk throws such as screen passes. In short-yardage situations — third-and-short in particular — look for Cutler to attempt receiver screens out of trips bunch formations (three receivers bunched together on one side of the field). In the two examples below, the Bears win a numbers game — they have three receivers (one to catch, two to block) against two cornerbacks.
Player to watch
In the offseason, as the Bears transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, Willie Young was in danger of being cut. Then around the trade deadline, reports surfaced that he requested a trade and that the Bears were shopping him.
The Bears held on to Young, and lately, he has been making a habit of dropping quarterbacks. The defensive end-turned-outside linebacker has recorded at least one sack in each of the past five games, a feat only two other Bears have ever accomplished. The two other Bears? Franchise greats Brian Urlacher (who did it in 2000) and Steve McMichael (who did it in 1983 and 1991).
Even more impressive is that Young has produced in limited snaps — he has come off the bench in three of the past five games.
My record: 7-6
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.