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Buccaneers-Giants: Tampa Bay’s running the ball a lot, and it’s gross

In this preview: Why the Giants would have been better off the past four seasons with Jameis Winston instead of Eli Manning. Plus, how the G-Men will attack the Bucs defense and why you should keep an eye on Vita Vea.
Running back Peyton Barber has 31 carries this season, the 11th most over the first two weeks of the NFL season. Is that what's best for the Bucs offense? [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Sep. 20
Updated Sep. 21

Something strange is happening with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense.

It’s not the players. Jameis Winston’s still here. And so is Mike Evans. And Chris Godwin. And O.J. Howard. And Cameron Brate. And Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Demar Dotson. Despite all the familiar faces, it’s hard to recognize the offense.

What about penalties? They’re not helping. It’s no coincidence that each of Tampa Bay’s six scoring drives this season has been penalty-free.

Still, something else is amiss, something that’s happening before the snap.

It’s the play-calling.

The NFL has never been more pass-happy, and yet the Bucs are keeping the ball on the ground. They’re running like it’s 1979.

Last season, Tampa Bay passed on 63 percent of plays, the sixth-highest rate. This season, it has passed on 54 percent of plays, the 10th-lowest rate.

No risk it, no biscuit? Not this team.

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The best time to pass is on first down. It’s one of the few situations in which the defense must honor both the run and the pass, and for that reason, first-down passes tend to be more successful than first-down runs. The Bucs, however, have been one of the NFL’s most run-heavy offenses on first down through the first three quarters. They’ve called twice as many runs (28) as passes (14), and they’ve done so despite gaining 9.7 yards per pass and only 3.8 yards per run. Last season, they favored the pass, throwing the ball on 52 percent of first downs. They averaged 9.4 yards per pass and 4.1 yards per run.

The pass-to-run ratio on first down isn’t the only difference. We’re seeing more two tight-end formations than we ever have from a Bruce Arians offense (coordinator Bryon Leftwich calls the plays). Tampa Bay’s most common personnel grouping remains 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), but it is using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) at an unusually high rate — 37 percent, the highest in the NFL.

Frequency of 12 personnel in Arians’ Cardinals and Bucs offenses
Season Team Frequency Run %
2013 Cardinals 29% 40%
2014 Cardinals 23% 48%
2015 Cardinals 29% 53%
2016 Cardinals 22% 49%
2017 Cardinals 25% 55%
2019 Bucs 37% 59%

Makes sense, right? In Howard and Brate, the Bucs have two starting-caliber tight ends. Shouldn’t they be on the field at the same time? Indeed, but when this personnel grouping has been on the field, more often than not, it has meant “run,” especially on first down.

On first down, Tampa Bay’s usage of 12 personnel jumps to 51 percent, again the highest rate in the NFL. That’s not to suggest there’s something wrong with that grouping, but the challenge is to keep the defense guessing. So far, the Bucs haven’t done that. They’ve shown a strong preference for the run, calling 19 runs to only 10 passes.

This explains, to some degree, why their tight ends have seen fewer targets than expected. Coaches have used them to establish the run. Take, for instance, Peyton Barber’s 16-yard touchdown run against the Panthers. Howard’s block of linebacker Luke Kuechly made that possible.

Bucs vs. Panthers, Week 2: Peyton Barber 16-yard touchdown run. [NFL Game Pass]

That first-down play call worked, but many of them haven’t, and as a result, we’ve seen the offense face unfavorable second and third-down situations, situations in which defenses can expect a pass. Tampa Bay is among the league leaders in second and longs (7 or more yards to go) and third and longs. And if inefficiency isn’t enough of an incentive to stop running the ball, here’s one more reason: The NFL has been cracking down on holding penalties, and holding is more likely to be called on run plays.

So this is where I insert the disclaimer that the Bucs have played only two games. It’s too early to say definitively that this is a trend. It’s possible it’s a setup, that they’re thinking ahead, that they’re establishing tendencies in order to break them. We’ll see Sunday when they play the Giants, a pass defense so bad that it made Josh Allen look good, so good that draftniks have spent the past week walking back their predraft evaluations of the Bills quarterback.

Even so, Tampa Bay’s emphasis on the run is a peculiar tendency. The front office, after all, has poured millions of dollars into the pass offense. This season, it has allocated:

• $23.8 million to quarterbacks, 54 percent above the league average.

• $21.9 million to receivers, 18 percent above the league average.

• $11.2 million to tight ends, 58 percent above the league average.

• $4.9 million to running backs, 17 percent below the league average.

It’s a strategy that can work in specific situations against particular opponents, but in the long term, the Bucs are going to need Winston to do more than manage the game. Otherwise, they won’t be able to keep up with the Chiefs and the Rams of the NFL. And then there’s the matter of multimillion-dollar contract extension. Soon, the organization will need to decide whether Winston is not only the present but also the future. That’ll be hard to do if he keeps handing the ball to a running back.

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Debate to watch: Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer?

When the Giants announced this week that first-round pick Daniel Jones would start in place of Eli Manning, sports media tore itself apart with six words: Is Eli a Hall of Famer?

Chances are you’ve made up your mind. You either recognize Manning has been a mediocre quarterback during most of his 16 seasons or overrate him because the Giants won two Super Bowls during his career. I fully realize that quarterback wins is a terribly simplistic statistic, but to those who give Manning a disproportionate share of the credit for those Super Bowl wins, shouldn’t you also hold him responsible for his 116-116 regular season win-loss record?

The fact is Manning hasn’t had many above-average seasons, and his past four have been decidedly below average. He has accumulated impressive raw counting stats (passing yards and touchdown passes, for example) largely because the Giants held onto him for too long.

Since Winston entered the NFL in 2015, he has bested Manning in just about every all-encompassing advanced measure of quarterback performance.

Note: DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) is Football Outsiders’ measure of quarterback efficiency, and QBR is ESPN’s measure of a quarterback’s contributions to winning. Grades are from Pro Football Focus.

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Play design to watch: Giants coach Pat Shurmur’s “levels” concept

Have you heard? Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles like to blitz. Against Cam Newton in Week 2, he was more aggressive than usual, calling a blitz on 60 percent of the Panthers quarterback’s dropbacks. Expect him to dial it back against Jones on Sunday, but just a touch.

Shurmur will counter with quick slants, screens and one of his staples: the “levels” concept, a play design in which a quarterback has a deep option, an intermediate option and a short option, sometimes all on one side of the field. The Giants used this concept to pick up 33 yards late in their Week 2 game against the Bills. Bennie Fowler ran a go route, which was essentially a clear-out route meant to open space underneath. Evan Engram ran a deep out route, and Rhett Ellison ran to the flat. The object was to lure a defender into a difficult position, to force him to make an impossible choice. Cornerback Kevin Johnson was the victim; Engram ran behind him, and Ellison ran in front. Because Johnson played shallow, Manning hit Engram deep. If Johnson had played deep, Manning would have checked down to Ellison.

Bills vs. Giants, 2019: Eli Manning to Evan Engram for 33 yards. [NFL Game Pass]

We saw the Giants execute the same concept against the Bucs last season for an 18-yard gain. Javien Elliott was the defender Manning exploited. Because he jumped the route in the flat, Manning threw deep to Sterling Sherpard. This can be an especially tricky concept to defend on third down. Situational awareness is critical in making the correct read.

Bucs vs. Giants, 2018: Eli Manning to Sterling Shepard for 18 yards. [NFL Game Pass]

Player to watch: Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea

Though outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett earned NFC defensive player of the week honors for his three-sack performance against the Panthers, let’s give Vea some love, too.

The box score suggests the Bucs’ 2018 first-round draft pick had a quiet night — four tackles and one quarterback hit — but he helped create Barrett’s sack opportunities. On each play, Vea occupied two offensive linemen, leaving Barrett one-on-one with overmatched left tackle Daryl Williams.

Shaquil Barrett sack No. 1 vs. Panthers [NFL Game Pass]
Shaquil Barrett sack No. 2 vs. Panthers [NFL Game Pass]
Shaquil Barrett sack No. 3 vs. Panthers [NFL Game Pass]

“Vita, he’s the other guy that’s getting a lot of push,” Arians said. “We’re getting inside push from (Ndamukong) Suh and Vita, so those outside guys are getting closer and closer. He’s playing extremely well. The best thing about him — he stayed in good shape. He was in great shape when he showed up.”

Vita will line up across from guard Will Hernandez (one pressure allowed this season) and center John Halapio (three pressures allowed) on Sunday.

Prediction

The Bucs will be facing a defense similar to the one they’ve practiced against since the spring. James Bettcher, who was the defensive coordinator in Arizona for Arians from 2015 to 2017, runs a scheme similar to the one Bowles runs here, which means Winston will see a lot of aggressive man coverages featuring one deep safety. The pass offense, which has been quiet to this point, should make some noise. This one shouldn’t be close. As New York talk show radio host Mike Francesa told Shurmur recently, “You don’t look very good at anything.” The pick: Bucs 28, Giants 10.

Statistics in the report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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Winston vs. Manning
Season Winston DVOA Manning DVOA Winston QBR Manning QBR Winston grade Manning grade
2015 2.1% (16) -1.9% (19) 57.2 (19) 57.9 (16) 70.2 (16) 66.7 (22)
2016 3.6% (16) -6.5% (20) 59.5 (12) 45.7 (27) 72.3 (19) 62.4 (27)
2017 14.3% (12) -8.2% (23) 52.0 (18) 47.5 (22) 74.4 (14) 67.8 (23)
2018 6.9% (15) -2.5% (24) 66.2 (8) 49.1 (25) 68.3 (25) 63.7 (30)