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Buccaneers AfterMath: Tampa Bay’s defense is raising red flags

Through three weeks, the Bucs offense looks as if it’s as good as anyone’s. The defense? It’s not slowing anyone down.
So much for the Steelers being a dysfunctional mess. They put up 30 points against the Bucs in the first half Monday night. [Associated Press]
So much for the Steelers being a dysfunctional mess. They put up 30 points against the Bucs in the first half Monday night. [Associated Press]
Published Sep. 25, 2018|Updated Sep. 25, 2018

You might have walked away from the game Monday night feeling pretty good about your Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, the first half was about as ugly as it gets. After the Steelers returned Ryan Fitzpatrick’s third interception for a touchdown late in the second quarter, you might have declared an end to Fitzmagic, ripped off your fake beard and started wondering whether you could buy your Jameis Winston jersey back from Goodwill.

Then the Bucs rallied in the second half. A 30-10 deficit became a 30-27 deficit with about three minutes to play. Heart! Fight! Resiliency!

The close outcome, though, is masking a lingering problem: the defense and its inability to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, which is the focus of this week’s Turning Point.

Turning Point

What happened: The Bucs spent the first two weeks of the season rewriting the rules about how the Bucs play football. The new Bucs jump on teams early. They score 50-yard touchdowns. They protect the football like DeSean Jackson protects his gold chains.

There was bound to be some regression. But no one expected regression all the way back to 2017. At least that’s what it felt like we were watching Monday night. A mistake-filled first half. A double-digit deficit. A furious comeback. And, ultimately, a letdown. Just like the loss to the Cardinals last season. And the Bills. And the Falcons.

The second half was fun, but it was largely noise. The game already had been decided.

What changed: Nineteen games into his NFL career, receiver Chris Godwin has become one of the most reliable players on the Bucs roster. Early in the second quarter, however, he made a rare mistake. After catching a pass over the middle and gaining enough yards for a first down, he lost the ball when Steelers cornerback Artie Burns lowered his head while attempting a tackle.

Given a short field, Pittsburgh capitalized quickly, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown two plays after the fumble to give the Steelers a 16-7 lead. Before the fumble, the game was a toss-up, but after Brown’s touchdown, Pittsburgh’s win probability surged to 66.5 percent, according to numberFire.

Twitter exploded after the play as fans criticized the 8-yard cushion cornerback Brent Grimes gave Brown. The problem, though, wasn’t the cushion. That made sense.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

The Bucs had only one deep safety, meaning that Grimes was one-on-one with Brown. If Brown beats Grimes off the line of scrimmage, it’s an easy touchdown. The problem is that Grimes flat out missed the tackle. Missed tackles were an issue all night long for the Bucs. They missed a season-high 10.

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There’s more to that play than Grimes’ missed tackle: The Bucs blitzed Roethlisberger, and he burned them. He got the ball to Brown so quickly that the extra rusher didn’t even faze him.

When we talk about blitzing, we often talk about the rewards and disregard the risk. The Bucs haven’t been a high-percentage blitz team in recent seasons, and for good reason. They’re not particularly effective at it, and they could use the help in coverage.

Almost every defensive coordinator will tell you he wouldn’t blitz if he didn’t feel like he had to. He’d prefer to generate pressure with his front four linemen alone. Veteran quarterbacks will exploit the open windows that a blitz creates, as Roethlisberger did repeatedly Monday. He was nearly flawless against the blitz, completing 10 of 12 passes for 162 yards and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, according to Pro Football Focus. He threw all three of his touchdown passes while being blitzed.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On Roethlisberger’s first touchdown pass, he diagnosed that the Bucs were in man coverage, and as soon as he saw linebacker Lavonte David rush, he dropped a pass into the zone David had vacated.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On his third touchdown pass, the one that put Pittsburgh up 30-10, the Steelers emptied the backfield and spread out the defense. The Bucs sent David and Kwon Alexander, but before they could get to Roethlisberger, the ball was out and on its way to Ryan Switzer, who was one-on-one against safety Justin Evans.

What it means: Whether it’s Fitzpatrick or Winston under center, the Bucs have a playoff-caliber offense. Three games into the season, however, the defense, even after the offseason upgrades, remains suspect.

Against opponents’ preferred quarterbacks this season (which excludes Nick Foles), the Bucs have allowed an 80 percent completion percentage, about 400 passing yards per game, three touchdown passes per game and a 125.5 rating. Granted, they don’t have to face quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger every week — just every other week. In their next game, they get Mitch Trubisky, but in the game after that, Matt Ryan. And suddenly, their Week 7 opponents — the Browns and newly-anointed starter Baker Mayfield — look dangerous.

Don’t be fooled by Jason Pierre-Paul’s two sacks Monday. While sacks can be drive killers (the Steelers failed to score points on both of the drives in which Pierre-Paul sacked Roethlisberger), the line needs to generate more consistent pressure. Otherwise, the Bucs are going to have win shootouts. The offense will have little margin for error, a risky proposition given Fitzpatrick’s and Winston’s turnover-prone histories.

Storylines

• Someone’s suspension is over.

• With the injuries to Beau Allen (foot), Mitch Unrein (concussion) and first-round draft pick Vita Vea (calf), the Bucs’ plan to mimic the Eagles’ defensive line rotation isn’t working. Pierre-Paul played 94 percent of the defensive snaps, Gerald McCoy played 85 percent, Vinny Curry played 83 percent and Will Gholston played 77 percent. Only one Eagles player (Brandon Graham) played more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

• Where was cornerback Ryan Smith on Sunday? A week after playing one of the best games of his career, he didn’t play a single snap on defense.

• How many souls will Bears linebacker Khalil Mack eat when the Bucs visit Chicago next week?

• The Bucs have lost their past four road games against NFC North opponents. Last win: against the Lions in 2013.

What I got right

Pittsburgh would overcome distractions and play well enough to win. Because that’s what they do in primetime (they’ve won 11 straight). Le’Veon Bell’s absence, Brown’s trade-me tweet, Roethlisberger’s bum elbow — none of it seemed to matter. The Steelers of the 1970s were known for their defense. The Steelers of the 2010s are known for their dysfunction in September.

What I got wrong

I expected tackling to be an issue for Pittsburgh. After missing 12 tackles against the Chiefs in Week 2, they missed only six against the Bucs. Burns, who missed three tackles a week ago, didn’t miss any.

Links

Rick Stroud: Winston or Fitzpatrick? Reading between the lines in the Bucs locker room

Tom Jones: Time for the Bucs to start Winston

Martin Fennelly: Tony Dungy gave us more than wins

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

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