A season can turn ugly fast.
Tampa Bay's 37-32 loss last weekend to the Rams so closely resembled the Bucs' other recent defeats — turnovers, porous defense, missed kicks — that coach Dirk Koetter openly suggested the team needs a culture change. It's not the worst possible start for the Bucs, but it's close.
Now the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos and their merciless defense come to town Sunday. Like with a car skidding toward a deer in the road, the outcome feels inevitable.
Do the Bucs stand a chance against the Broncos? In search of the answer, I studied game film this week with former Bucs and Jets cornerback Donnie Abraham. Abraham is the defensive coordinator at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
We found that the Bengals' Week 3 game plan for Denver offers clues for how the Bucs might attack. It'll take a nearly flawless effort and some good fortune, but a Bucs win is possible, even if Tampa Bay's chances are juuust slightly better than Lloyd Christmas' with Mary Swanson.
Though the Bengals have one of the NFL's five best receivers in A.J. Green, they tried to win on the ground with Jeremy Hill. In the first half, Cincinnati rushed 18 times and passed eight. Through the first three quarters, it rushed 28 times and passed 18.
Firmly committed to the run, the Bengals used tight formations, often bringing in an extra offensive lineman or second tight end. They passed out of these looks, too.
Let's break down one such play, a first-and-10 pass in the third quarter. Though the Broncos sack Andy Dalton on it, the play is an example of the narrow window of opportunity that might exist for the Bucs.
The Bengals load the left side of the formation, placing a tight end and an extra offensive lineman, Jake Fisher, next to the left tackle. The Broncos put eight defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, leave their cornerbacks in single coverage and ask one safety to play centerfield. Though the short middle of the field is crowded, the Bengals have created space for their receivers on the outside.
Here's where the play breaks down: T.J. Ward, the safety lurking near the line of scrimmage, blitzes off the left edge. Because Fisher is tied up with linebacker Shane Ray, Ward has a clear path to the quarterback. Ray makes quick work of Fisher, and he, too, chases Dalton.
Off the play-action, the Bengals are looking to go deep, but if they had asked their receivers to run quick slants or digs instead, they would have had another first down.
"That's just, 'My guys are better than your guys,' " Abraham says of the Broncos' rush. "Really, the only chance you've got when you line up in these formations is to get the ball out quick."
The Bengals couldn't recover from the 8-yard loss and ended up punting. The Bucs will want to avoid first-down failures like this one. They've gained an average 4.74 yards on first down, which ranks 23rd in the league, and turned the ball over a league-high three times. The Broncos, meanwhile, have allowed 3.88 yards, second fewest.
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The Bengals lost by two touchdowns but were still very much in the game. They took the lead in the fourth quarter and didn't fade until Andy Dalton threw a late interception.
Dalton made the correct read on the play, and if the tight end had run a slightly different route, Cincinnati would have beaten the defense.
On first and 10 from their 25-yard line, the Bengals come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). They put tight end C.J. Uzomah on the right side of the formation, across from linebacker Von Miller. With this formation, Cincinnati is trying to spread the Denver defense and force its pass rushers into taking wider angles to the quarterback. In theory, Dalton should have more time to throw.
The Broncos drop into zone coverage. On the left side of the field, they have four players defending two receivers. On the right side, they have three defenders on two receivers. The cornerback and safety over the top are responsible for the outside receiver, leaving Uzomah one on one with T.J. Ward.
Up front, the Bengals give their right tackle help against Miller by keeping their running back in to block. Defensive end Derek Wolfe, however, beats the right guard and hits Dalton as he throws.
Uzomah runs straight for 9 yards and breaks down before cutting in toward the hashmarks. When he decelerates, Ward closes in and gets his hand on the ball. Safety Will Parks comes down with the interception, which essentially seals the Denver win.
The pass concept was strong and the decision-making sound, but the difference between catch and turnover was small, Abraham says.
"If they run a timing route where as soon as (Uzomah) clears (Ward), the ball comes out, that's a completion," he says. "The fact that the tight end came up, broke down and then he went inside gave the safety time to react."
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If the Bucs are to pull off an upset, Jameis Winston can't throw 50 passes for the third straight week. Fifty passes means 50 chances for Von Miller to do Von Miller things.
Tampa Bay allowed only two sacks against the Rams, but sacks don't give a complete picture. Los Angeles hurried Winston 10 times and hit him five. Denver has generated pressure on 22 percent of pass plays, the highest rate in the NFL.
"If you line up and have to throw against (the Broncos), you're not going to win, period," Abraham says. "You've got to put them in situations where your numbers are better than theirs, where it's one-on-one on the outside as opposed to two-on-one or three-on-two. Because that's what they do, they outnumber you in coverage because they're not worried about their pass rush."
Case in point: When the Broncos recorded back-to-back sacks of Andy Dalton in the final two minutes, they rushed four defenders and dropped seven into coverage.
On the first sack, pressure from Miller forced Dalton out of the pocket. Let's go to the game film.
Down 12 points and out of timeouts, the Bengals come to the line in the shotgun and with four receivers. They don't have a tight end on either side of the offensive line, but they set a running back to the right of Dalton. You'd think the running back is there to help right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi against Miller.
The running back, however, takes a step inside as Miller rushes off the edge. That quickly — a half-second after the snap — the play is over. Left alone, Ogbuehi is no match for Miller's quickness and fails to even get his hands on him.
"If you don't chip Von Miller, he's going to beat the tackle every time," Abraham says. "The tackles have no chance. They have noooo chance."
With seven Broncos defenders covering four Bengals receivers, Dalton has to run. As he approaches the line of scrimmage, Shane Ray wraps him up to record his third sack.
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During training camp, Dirk Koetter insisted, "We're going to be a run-first football team." But through three games, the Bucs are one of the least-balanced teams, passing on 67 percent of plays. If that trend holds, they'll head to Carolina next week for a Monday night game with a 1-3 record.
Denver is formidable but not unbeatable. Success against it depends upon the Bucs' big bodies up front getting a consistent push and creating lanes for running back Charles Sims. When the Bucs do pass, Sims will be busy in pass protection, just as he was against the Rams (his 13 pass-block attempts in Week 3 led all running backs). And if Tampa Bay adopts a similar approach to Cincinnati and incorporates an extra offensive lineman, look for tackle Gosder Cherilus to get those snaps.
Though Koetter likes to take shots downfield, Jameis Winston's not going to get the time and space. Consider that the Broncos held Andy Dalton, one of the better deep passers in the league, to 206 passing yards, the Colts' Andrew Luck to 197 yards in Week 2 and the Panthers' Cam Newton to 194 yards in Week 1. As the plays above illustrate, Denver's aggressiveness occasionally leaves it vulnerable to quick, sharp passes underneath, so watch for slants, digs and screens.
"With Denver, you've got three seconds, and maybe less than that," Abraham says. "You don't have time to sit back there and go through your reads with these guys because you'll be on your back."
Too many plays like that and the Bucs' season will get even uglier.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.