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Who are these Buccaneers? They can’t pass but now they can run? What?

Tampa Bay isn’t making any sense lately, so we turned to the All-22 coaches film to see whether we could find some answers.
Jameis Winston completed 13 of 25 passes for 157 yards in a 20-12 loss to the Ravens on Sunday. The 157 yards were a career low for Winston (counting only games he played from start to finish). [Associated Press]
Jameis Winston completed 13 of 25 passes for 157 yards in a 20-12 loss to the Ravens on Sunday. The 157 yards were a career low for Winston (counting only games he played from start to finish). [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 20, 2018|Updated Dec. 20, 2018

Poor Dirk Koetter.

The Buccaneers head coach can’t catch a break. Just as his offense finally reins in the turnovers, it stops scoring points.

In the Saints and Ravens, the Bucs recently faced two of the NFL’s better defenses, but how is it that they managed to score only 26 total points?

After reviewing the tape and the numbers, I can’t say that the team we’ve watched over the past couple of weeks is all that dissimilar from the one we watched over the first 12 games of the season. The offense continues to attack opponents vertically, and Jameis Winston is as aggressive a passer as ever. He still is taking shots down the field and trying to fit the ball into tight windows.

Jameis Winston pass statistics
Week Opponent Average intended air yards Tight-window throw %
14 Saints 12.9 36.8
15 Ravens 10.6 32.0
Season All 10.8 22.4

So if the scheme isn’t different, what is?

The execution. It hasn’t been there.

In addition to completion percentages, the NFL also tracks quarterbacks’ “expected” completion percentages. By comparing those two measures we can get a rough sense of whether a quarterback is beating or falling short of expectations. Of late, Winston has been falling short. That’s not entirely his fault. The players around him are responsible, too. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Ronald Jones each dropped a pass against the Ravens.

RELATED STORY: It’s coaching rumors season

Something else has disappeared: the play-action pass game. Once a staple of the Bucs offense, the play-action attack has been nearly nonexistent. Such passes can be a quarterback’s best friend; the fake handoffs pull linebackers toward the line of scrimmage and freeze safeties, thereby opening up throwing lanes.

Against the Saints and Ravens, Winston attempted 12 play-action passes. He completed just six for an average of 3.6 yards. That average was the second worst among quarterbacks who have played in each of the past two weeks. Only the Jaguars’ Cody Kessler had a worse average (1.0 yards). Cody. Kessler.

Play-action pass productivity, Weeks 14 and 15
Quarterback Team Comp Att Yards/att
Aaron Rodgers Packers 8 10 4.5
Josh Johnson Washington 6 12 4.2
Jeff Driskel Bengals 8 19 3.6
Jameis Winston Bucs 6 12 3.6
Cody Kessler Jaguars 4 8 1.0

The Ravens completely shut down this phase of the Bucs’ attack, allowing Winston to complete only 3 of 5 passes for 13 yards. Before you blame the lousy weather Sunday, consider the context:

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[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Situation: First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 36-yard line, 9:22 left in the first quarter (incomplete pass to Evans)

This is one of those plays in which you can’t blame Winston. Evans beat cornerback Jimmy Smith down the left sideline but slowed down as the ball approached. It could be that safety Eric Weddle’s presence distracted Evans.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Situation: First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 24, 4:57 left in the first quarter (3-yard pass to Adam Humphries)

You were expecting the Ravens to blitz all game long, weren’t you? Instead, they sent an extra rusher after Winston just six times, electing instead to drop players into coverage. This was one of the six blitzes. Winston got the ball out quickly to Humphries on a screen pass, but Weddle read it the whole way and did what the Bucs defense struggled to do — made a tackle.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Situation: First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 49, 1:24 left in the first quarter (1-yard pass to Peyton Barber)

Typically, when a team calls a play-action pass, it’s looking to take an intermediate-to-deep shot. That was the case here, but with four Ravens defensive backs in deep coverage against two Bucs receivers, Winston wisely checked down to Barber. Linebacker Matthew Judon, however, kept his eyes on Winston and hit Barber as soon as the ball arrived.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Situation: First and 10 from the Tampa Bay 25, 3:52 left in the second quarter (incomplete pass to Evans)

The Bucs were the victims of poor officiating on this one. Cornerback Brandon Carr broke up the pass but jumped on Evans’ back to do so. Even Carr knew he got away with defensive pass interference. He did that thing guilty defensive backs do before they wave “incomplete” — look for around for a yellow flag. The real kicker? Though the referees missed Carr’s interference, they didn’t miss center Ryan Jensen’s brief grab of a lineman’s jersey on the next play, wiping out a 16-yard completion to Godwin.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Situation: First and 10 from the 50, 10:17 in left in the fourth quarter (9-yard pass to Cameron Brate)

The math didn’t work in the Bucs’ favor here. Tampa Bay kept a running back and tight end in to block, leaving Winston with only three receiving options. Baltimore didn’t bite on the fake handoff and — as it had done throughout the game — dropped seven defenders into coverage. The Ravens’ objective was clear: take away the Bucs’ deep ball. Instead of forcing a pass, Winston took what the defense gave him and settled for a 9-yard gain.

Tampa Bay’s recent lack of production on play-action passes isn’t an aberration. Winston’s rate of such passes has declined for three straight seasons. So, too, has his effectiveness. If the Bucs are to regain their early-season explosiveness, they’ll need a play-action revival.

About the run game ...

Before Sunday, defenses were stuffing Bucs running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage about five times per game. On Sunday, the Ravens stuffed them only twice.

In terms of run blocking, Tampa Bay’s offensive line, led by left guard and Pro Bowl snub Ali Marpet, turned in arguably its strongest showing of the season. Take your eye off the ball sometime and watch Marpet maul linemen and linebackers. He is relentless. Along with the Cowboys’ Zack Martin, the Patriots’ Shaq Mason and the Ravens’ Marshal Yanda, he is in the conversation for one of the three best guards in the game.

Among the plays from Sunday’s game that jumped out to me:

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

A 5-yard run by Barber in the first quarter. After the snap, Marpet (No. 74), in concert with left tackle Donovan Smith, drove back defensive end Brent Urban and then jumped to the next level and tossed linebacker Kenny Young to the ground.

The 64-yard pass from Winston to Evans in the second quarter. As Winston dodged pressure in the backfield, Marpet never stopped working.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

A 2-yard run by Barber in the fourth quarter. Despite being 30 pounds lighter, Marpet blew defensive tackle Brandon Williams off the line of scrimmage and helped open a lane between himself and Jensen. If Jensen and right guard Caleb Benenoch had held their blocks a touch longer, Barber might have taken the ball 41 yards to the house.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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