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Buccaneers-Browns All-22: On Jameis Winston, the run game and 59-yard field goals

The quarterback can run, but the running backs can’t. What is going on here?
 
Jameis Winston had a team-high 55 rushing yards in the Bucs' 26-23 win over the Browns on Sunday. [Associated Press]
Jameis Winston had a team-high 55 rushing yards in the Bucs' 26-23 win over the Browns on Sunday. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 24, 2018|Updated Oct. 25, 2018

After every Buccaneers game, I review the film the coaches watch. Unlike the television broadcast, it shows all 22 players on the field. Often, I find things I missed while watching the game in real-time. The eye in the sky, as they say, doesn’t lie.

This week, though, I have more questions than answers. Here are a few that are on my mind as we head toward this Sunday’s game against the Bengals:

In the long term, can the Bucs win with Jameis Winston as their quarterback?

That’s the question of the season, isn’t it? Forty-eight games into Winston’s career, I don’t know. I don’t think he’s nearly as bad as some people perceive him to be, but there’s certainly room for significant improvement, as he acknowledges. I rank him just outside the 10 best in the league, somewhere between No. 12 and 16.

His rate of turnovers remain the primary area of concern, and while he’s not solely to blame for every single one, it’s not as if the interceptions and fumbles are random occurrences. Turnovers have been an issue since his days at Florida State. There, his teams could overcome those mistakes. In the NFL, the margin for error is much, much thinner. At this point, you have to wonder whether the Winston you see now is the Winston you’ll always see. And that Winston might be good enough when paired with adequate defenses and special teams.

There were some aspects of his performance Sunday, however, that I appreciate more after watching the tape, particularly his scrambling. He rushed nine times (excluding a kneel down at the end of the first half) and gained a first down or scored a touchdown on five of those carries. He added more value rushing in Week 7 than any other quarterback except the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky, according to ESPN’s Total QBR.

In general, Winston leading the team in rushing yards (55) isn’t a winning formula. He’s not Randall Cunningham. But his runs Sunday were significant for a reason beyond yards and first downs. Winston has shown a tendency to force passes to receivers even when they’re well-covered. Does he do that because he feels he can make the tight-window throw? Does he do that because he wants to give his teammates a chance to make a play? Probably some of both.

Against the Browns, though, there were instances where in the past I would have expected Winston to force a pass and instead he took what the defense gave him. These weren’t just runs born of desperation; they were smart decisions. On a couple of plays, including his 14-yard touchdown run, Cleveland rushed three defenders and dropped eight into pass coverage. With no one open and no one spying Winston, he wisely took off and ran. Eight defenders to cover five receivers — that’s some fast math with 275-pound monsters looking to take your head off.

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On another play, a third and 2 late in the third quarter, Chris Godwin ran a “pivot” route (a route in which a receiver runs a slant, stops and cuts toward the sideline) and was open. Winston could have targeted him but would have had to throw the ball over a lineman. The Browns, though, essentially invited Winston to run. The only defender in the middle of the field was a safety, and he was 30 yards away.

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What’s wrong with the Bucs’ run game, and how concerned should we be?

As a team, the Bucs are averaging a Doug Martin-esque 3.6 yards per carry, which ranks 30th. Starting running back Peyton Barber is averaging 3.5 yards, and rookie Ronald Jones is averaging 2.6 yards.

Those numbers alone aren’t reason to be concerned, however. Running back yards per carry can be a fickle statistic. It’s inconsistent not only season-over-season but also within a season. Take Martin’s 2015. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, which ranked third among running backs. When we look more closely, though, we find that he averaged 4.5 yards during the first half of the season and 5.2 yards during the second half. Tampa Bay rewarded Martin with a new contract, and he averaged 2.9 yards the next season.

There are a couple of takeaways there. One, the Bucs overestimated Martin’s value. Two, they had a better run game in 2015 and won six games; they had a worse run game in 2016 and won nine games. The lesson, as always, is to pass in the first quarter, pass in the second quarter, pass in the third quarter and run in the fourth quarter.

It’s difficult to separate the effectiveness of a running back from the effectiveness of his offensive line. They go hand-in-hand. I can’t say for sure who is at fault for the Bucs’ struggles on the ground this season, but my feeling, based on watching several games worth of tape, is that the blocking in front of Barber and Jones has been substandard.

That was on full display during a Barber first-and-10 run from the Tampa Bay 27 in the third quarter Sunday. Almost immediately upon receiving the handoff, Barber was under siege. The Browns first hit him at the 23, then again at the 23 and again at the 24, from which point he dragged linebacker Jamie Collins 5 yards.

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While the Rams offensive line is opening lanes wider than a Mack truck for Todd Gurley, Barber has to not only run the ball but also do so while giving defenders piggyback rides.

Despite the addition of center Ryan Jensen and the corresponding move of Ali Marpet back to guard, the Bucs offensive line might be worse this season than last, at least in terms of run blocking. Running backs have been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on an NFL-high 30 percent of their runs, according to Football Outsiders.

How good was the Bucs defense on third down?

Coaches, players and analysts will tell you that it’s important for a defense to get off the field on third down. They’re not wrong. But if a team wants to get off the field on third down, it can increase its chances of success by executing on earlier downs. This is why third-down percentages often don’t paint an accurate picture of a defense’s effectiveness.

RELATED STORY: Third-down defense isn’t as important as we think

Remember how the Bucs had the best opponent third-down conversion rate in 2016? What happened in 2017? They had the worst. So while the Bucs holding the Browns to only three third-down conversions (out of 14 opportunities) was a positive, there were a couple of reasons for their success. One was Cleveland’s lack of discipline and the resulting penalties. Another was Tampa Bay’s stinginess on second down.

Overall, Baker Mayfield completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns to no interceptions. That doesn’t seem so bad, but how did he do on second down? His output was meager, as he completed 5 of 10 passes for 35 yards. Browns running backs weren’t any more effective, gaining 17 yards on nine carries.

One sequence that stood out to me: the Browns’ second possession, right after they recorded a safety. They opened the drive with an illegal shift penalty. A Nick Chubb 2-yard run set up second and 13, a favorable situation for any defense but especially a defense facing Cleveland’s thin receiving corps.

Mayfield wanted to pick on Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis, but the rookie answered the challenge. The Browns lined up running back Duke Johnson out wide across from Davis, but he might have been a just decoy. As Johnson set up for a screen pass, receiver Jarvis Landry ran a “wheel” route (a route in which a receiver breaks to the outside and then runs down the sideline) and tried to sneak behind Davis. This has been a concept Tampa Bay’s secondary has struggled defending all season, but this time Davis didn’t take the bait of the screen pass and picked up Landry.

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Davis was solid all game long, allowing only one catch for 6 yards, and his recognition on this play forced Mayfield to turn away from his primary read and toward Chubb, who was covered by linebacker Kwon Alexander, on the other side of the field. The incompletion set up third and 13 — one of Cleveland’s 10 third downs of 6 or more yards Sunday — and ultimately the Browns punted.

What was coach Dirk Koetter thinking kicking the 59-yard field goal?

Earlier this week, I argued that in the final moments of overtime Koetter chose his inconsistent kicker over his inconsistent quarterback. I’ve thought about it some more, and I don’t think it’s that complicated.

Koetter had three options, all of which favored Browns. He ruled out punting because, with less than two minutes left in the period, the Bucs might not have gotten the ball back. That left him to decide between kicking the field goal and going for it.

Over the past 10 seasons, teams dropped back to pass 59 times on fourth and 15; they converted 10 times. In that span, teams attempted 14 field goals from their opponent’s 41-yard line; they made five of them. Granted, those 14 attempts don’t constitute a large sample, so what if we add 58-yard and 60-yard attempts? Teams made 21 of 55.

On Sunday, Koetter simply chose the better of two low-probability options.

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