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Super Bowl LIII AfterMath: Timely takeaways for the Buccaneers

On handling pressure, questionable officiating and why players matter more than coaches.
Jonathan Jones' hit on Rams quarterback Jared Goff as he was about to run out of bounds did not draw a flag. [Associated Press]
Published Feb. 4
Updated Feb. 5

The NFL season is over. We’re more than 200 days away from witnessing another meaningful game.

There’s only one way to get through the next few months: keep talking about football.

We’ve reached the portion of the program in which we pick apart the Super Bowl and discuss the lessons learned, especially as they pertain to the team we follow most. Around here, for better or worse, that team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This time around that’s an especially tricky exercise because almost nothing happened Sunday night between the Patriots and Rams. Really. NFL Films’ Super Bowl LIII highlight movie is going to be a short one. You could boil the game down to five minutes in the fourth quarter. Almost nothing of consequence happened in the other 55 minutes.

Even so, there are a few Bucs-related takeaways worth talking about. Because what else are we going to do? Break down Louisville-Virginia Tech or preview the Pebble Beach Pro-Am?

1. Performance under pressure

Bill Belichick’s Patriots held Rams quarterback Jared Goff to 19-of-38 passing for 229 yards and in doing so improved to 11-2 in the playoffs against quarterbacks with three or fewer seasons of NFL experience.

“I think you see why they are so good, and why they’ve done it for so long,” Goff said of the Patriots. “You have so much respect for them, and you really understand why now. It sucks. I didn’t do enough. But at the same time, it’s 3-3 in the fourth quarter, and we had our chances. We didn’t take advantage of those chances, and that’s my job.”

Only Goff can speak to whether he was overcome by the moment, but the numbers don’t offer much evidence to the contrary. The Rams, among the highest scoring and most efficient offenses, delivered one of their worst performances in two seasons under coach Sean McVay. Their three points were the fewest, their 14 first downs were second fewest, their 4.3 yards per play were third fewest and their 23.1 third-down conversion percentage was third lowest.

What happened? The Patriots pressured Goff on more than 40 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. His passer rating on those dropbacks? 10.7, 82 percent worse than during the regular season.

Even when Goff had time, he came up short. Take, for instance, his failure to connect with Brandin Cooks late in the third quarter. New England’s defense made a rare mistake, leaving Cooks wide open in the end zone. If Goff had thrown the ball half a second sooner, it would have been a touchdown. Instead, cornerback Jason McCourty flew across the field to break up the pass the moment it arrived.

That missed opportunity will haunt Goff, as will a second-and-22 play early in the fourth quarter in which he targeted Cooks. As CBS analyst Tony Romo noted during the broadcast, receiver Josh Reynolds was running free through the secondary on a crossing route. Goff never saw him.

[NFL Game Pass]

“He may score, or at least get all the way down to the 20-yard line,” Romo said. “It’s just one of those times where you take a shot somewhere else, and you look back at the tape the next day, and you’re like, ‘Ugh.’ That could have been the difference.”

Seeing Goff struggle Sunday got me thinking about Jameis Winston, who has excelled when under pressure the past couple of seasons. In 2018, his 84.9 passer rating ranked sixth among qualifying quarterbacks. In 2017, his 84.4 rating ranked second to only Tom Brady (96.6).

That might be a sign of growth; it might be a fluke. Performance under pressure tends to be volatile from one season to the next and offers little predictive value. The better measure to consider when forecasting a player’s future is his performance from a clean pocket. If a quarterback can’t excel from a clean pocket, chances are his performance under pressure isn’t sustainable. Winston’s 92.0 rating this season ranked 33rd, behind Brock Osweiler and ahead of Blake Bortles, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Patriots counter pressure by throwing quick passes, and the strategy worked to great effect in the Super Bowl. Because of Brady’s quick release (2.44 seconds), he faced pressure on less than 20 percent of his dropbacks. All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald was essentially a nonfactor as New England held him to one pressure, a season low.

Quick passes aren’t Bruce Arians’ forte, so the Bucs will counter pressure in 2019 by giving Winston ice baths after games.

2. Those sometimes/sometimes not meddling referees ...

With about 12 minutes left, Goff hit Cooks for a 16-yard gain that took the Rams to the Los Angeles 43-yard line. Todd Gurley followed up with a 10-yard run around the left tackle, and suddenly the Rams looked as if they were in rhythm.

Until they weren’t. The referees negated Gurley’s run, which would have been the second-longest of the game for Los Angeles, because they said Rams center John Sullivan committed holding.

Holding?!

If Sullivan committed holding on that play, then Maroon 5 put on a good halftime show.

On the next play — first and 20 — Goff, rather than make a risky throw downfield, took off and ran. As he approached the right sideline, however, defensive back Jonathan Jones clocked him. It might have been legal by the strictest interpretation of the rules — Goff was inbounds at the time of the hit — but it wasn’t necessary, and it most certainly was more deserving of a flag than Sullivan’s phantom holding penalty.

Remember how the Bucs’ 2013 opener against the Jets ended? Referees didn’t hesitate to call a penalty on linebacker Lavonte David when he shoved quarterback Geno Smith as he was running out of bounds. The foul put Nick Folk in position to kick a game-winning field goal.

This offseason, the defensive pass interference noncall in the Rams-Saints NFC championship game will be a hot topic and might even inspire rule changes, but the NFL’s first order of business should be ensuring consistency in what constitutes roughing the passer. We’ve seen too many games shift because of referees’ arbitrary enforcement.

The Bucs might want to slip this on the agenda when the NFL’s competition committee meets at the league meeting at the end of March. Considering Arians’ style of offense, chances are Winston will end up on his butt about a hundred times this season.

RELATED STORY: When Bruce Arians wants to risk it, his quarterbacks end up on their biscuits

3. It’s the players, not the plays

After penalties stalled the Rams’ drive, the Patriots seized control. Brady hit four straight passes, and Sony Michel punched the ball into the end zone for the game’s only touchdown.

Brady was surgical on the drive, but there wasn’t anything particularly special about his passes or the plays, especially the three before Michel’s touchdown. In fact, New England called the same play each time — Julian Edelman ran to the middle, Rex Burkhead ran a hitch route on the outside and Rob Gronkowski lined up in the slot and ran a seam route (a route in which the receiver runs a go route and the quarterback waits for him to clear the depth of the linebackers).

Edelman caught the first pass for 13 yards, Burkhead caught the next one for 7 yards and Gronkowski caught the final one, a perfectly thrown ball, for 29 yards.

It turns out that Belichick vs. McVay was one of the most overhyped storylines of this Super Bowl. In this sequence, the most pivotal of the game, neither was a factor. Nothing revolutionary happened. No jet sweeps, reverses or flea flickers. Just the same play three times in a row.

Arians might very well be a good coach. Maybe he squeezes a win or two more out of this team that Dirk Koetter couldn’t. What Super Bowl LIII reinforced, however, is that players rule the NFL. Preparation matters from Monday to Saturday, but come Sunday, it’s all about execution. The good players not only do their jobs but they do them consistently.

Important Bucs offseason dates

• Feb. 26 to March 4: NFL scouting combine

• March 5: Deadline for teams to apply the “franchise” or “transition” tags to one of their eligible players. Name to watch: left tackle Donovan Smith.

• March 13: Free agency

• April 25 to 27: NFL draft. Tampa Bay has the fifth overall pick.

Odds to win Super Bowl LIV

(Courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.)

Chiefs: 6-1

Rams: 8-1

Patriots: 8-1

Saints: 8-1

Bears: 14-1

Chargers: 14-1

Steelers: 14-1

Cowboys: 16-1

Packers: 16-1

Vikings: 16-1

Ravens: 20-1

Browns: 20-1

Colts: 20-1

Texans: 20-1

Eagles: 20-1

Seahawks: 30-1

Falcons: 40-1

Jaguars: 40-1

Giants: 40-1

49ers: 50-1

Panthers: 60-1

Broncos: 60-1

Titans: 60-1

Jets: 80-1

Bucs: 80-1

Bills: 100-1

Bengals: 100-1

Lions: 100-1

Raiders: 100-1

Washington: 100-1

Dolphins: 300-1

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

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