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Buccaneers-Saints AfterMath: Run-heavy play-calling is holding back Tampa Bay’s offense

Bruce Arians has talked about wanting the Bucs to play fearless. That didn’t happen Sunday in New Orleans.
 
“We’re built to run and stop the run, and then get after the quarterback and take shots,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said last week. “That’s our MO, and we’re not changing.”
“We’re built to run and stop the run, and then get after the quarterback and take shots,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said last week. “That’s our MO, and we’re not changing.” [ BUTCH DILL | Associated Press ]
Published Oct. 7, 2019|Updated Oct. 8, 2019

This one felt different.

In the Buccaneers’ losses earlier this season to the 49ers and Giants, it at least felt as if they belonged on the same field.

Against the Saints on Sunday, however, they were thoroughly outclassed on both sides of the ball.

In the 31-24 loss in New Orleans, the themes of this season began to crystallize:

• The defense is very much a work in progress. Though it has improved, poised veteran quarterbacks will dismantle it, as Teddy Bridgewater did. His four touchdown passes tied a career high. Scheme can mask weaknesses for only so long.

• The offense isn’t the strength that many thought it was. The outburst last week vs. the Rams was a mirage and partly the product of short fields.

• This team isn’t good enough to overcome the coaches’ tactical errors, which contributed to the loss to the Giants and arguably this one as well.

In this week’s AfterMath, we dissect those emerging trends.

What happened

The Bucs have excelled in doing the opposite of what’s expected. They were 6½-point underdogs at Carolina in Week 2 and won 20-14. They were nine-point underdogs at Los Angeles in Week 4 and won 55-40.

On Sunday, they were three-point underdogs in New Orleans and (briefly) teased that they were capable of pulling off a third straight upset on the road. Late in the first quarter, rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had played a grand total of 16 snaps on defense this season, recorded his first career interception on a third-down pass that bounced off running back Alvin Kamara’s hands. Two plays later, Tampa Bay celebrated a touchdown and a 7-3 lead. As it turns out, end zones are easier to find when you only have to travel 20 yards instead of 75.

MORE BUCS: The Saints did to Mike Evans what the Bucs couldn’t do to Michael Thomas

What changed

After the interception, Bridgewater caught fire and completed his next 11 passes. Three of them resulted in touchdowns — a 14-yarder to Michael Thomas, a 9-yarder to Jared Cook and a 33-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr.

Bridgewater’s most significant throw, however, might have been one that was scrubbed from the box score. Late in the second quarter, he targeted Cook as he ran an out route to the right side of the field. As Cook reached for the ball, Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis lowered his head and leveled the tight end. The violent helmet-to-helmet hit resulted in a 15-yard penalty, but more significantly, Davis’ disqualification. Afterward, Bridgewater shredded the Tampa Bay secondary, completing more than three-quarters of his passes (11 for first downs or touchdowns) and racking up 212 yards.

Despite the Bucs’ inability to stop Bridgewater and Thomas from tiptoeing through tulips, they climbed back into the game late in the third quarter thanks to a 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that cut the Saints’ lead to 24-17. That’s as close as they would get, however, because on their next possession, they turtled.

The Bucs' chances of winning Sunday peaked at around 50 percent after Chris Godwin's touchdown at the end of the first quarter.
The Bucs' chances of winning Sunday peaked at around 50 percent after Chris Godwin's touchdown at the end of the first quarter. [ Times ]

The Bucs opened the drive by going backward, which is never a good thing when you’re trying to, you know, go forward. After a false-start penalty made it first and 15 at the Tampa Bay 30, the Bucs chose to — you guessed it — run the ball. Ronald Jones gained 2 yards. An 11-yard pass to Bobo Wilson got them to third and 2, but they failed to convert. On fourth and 2, Tampa Bay punted.

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In that situation, the percentages say that an offense should go for it. Even if you have an allergy to math, consider the flow of the game. The Bucs had struggled all afternoon to slow the Saints. They had forced only two punts and no three-and-outs, which has been an issue all season. They came into Sunday ranked 31st in rate of punts forced and 29th in rate of three-and-outs forced. They needed points.

By choosing not to keep the ball of fourth and 2, Tampa Bay chose to give the game to New Orleans. On the Saints’ ensuing possession, they finished the job, driving 91 yards for a touchdown that put them up 31-17 with 10 minutes left.

MORE BUCS: Bruce Arians battled the refs Sunday, and the refs won

What it means

We know the Bucs aren’t the Patriots, Bears or Bills. They’ve replaced their bend-and-break defense from last season with a boom-or-bust defense.

The offense, however, isn’t any more consistent. Outside of the long touchdown drive in the third quarter, Jameis Winston and Co. didn’t do much of anything. Tampa Bay scored its first touchdown after Murphy-Bunting’s interception put them at the doorstep of the end zone and its final touchdown when the game was already out of reach.

Coach Bruce Arians talked last week about wanting his players, specifically Winston, to play fearless.

“You have to play fearless, and that’s one of my biggest messages to Jameis — throw it,” he said. “Don’t worry about it, just throw it and know why you’re throwing it. We have to play that way.”

He also talked about the team’s commitment to the run.

“We’re built to run and stop the run, and then get after the quarterback and take shots,” he said. “That’s our MO, and we’re not changing.”

On Sunday, those ideas were in conflict. The Bucs ran the ball too often, especially on first down. Tampa Bay rushed 13 times for 65 yards and passed four times for 11 yards. The 5 yards per carry average might make it seem as if the Bucs’ plan was working, but that’s the problem with averages — they smooth over context. If a team is gaining 5 yards on every run, sure, keep running. That rarely happens, however. Instead, you’re more likely to see a team gain 8 yards, then 2 on the next run.

Unsuccessful runs on first down are doubly bad. They not only cost an offense an opportunity to pass, but put the offense in predictable passing situations.

Against the Rams, Winston overcame the run-heavy play-calling and completed 15 passes for 200 yards in long down and distance situations (6 or more yards to go). Thirteen completions resulted in either a first down or touchdown. He wasn’t as successful against the Saints. He completed seven passes for 111 yards. Five completions resulted in a first down or touchdown.

Arians said in his postgame news conference that Tampa Bay needed to get into more manageable third-down situations. There’s a way to do that: Pass the ball more often on first down. If the Bucs were to do that, they might even realize an extra benefit. If you get first downs on first down or second down, you don’t need to get them on third down or fourth down.

Storylines and observations

• Vernon Hargreaves had a horrific day in coverage. When responsible for defending Thomas, he allowed the Saints receiver to catch all five of his targets for 100 yards. All five catches resulted in either a first down or touchdown.

“I think he’s capable of better," Arians said. “He’s got great hands. He’s got great anticipation. He’s a very smart player. So, yeah, I would expect a little bit more.”

• Entering Sunday, Bridgewater had thrown only two passes at least 20 yards. One was dropped, and the other was intercepted. Against the Bucs, he threw four deep passes and completed all of them, including back-to-back dimes (28 yards to Thomas and 33 yards to Ginn for a touchdown) to start the third quarter.

• Tampa Bay’s offensive line allowed four sacks and 11 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Demar Dotson and Josh Wells each surrendered a sack. Right guard Alex Cappa led the team with three pressures allowed, including two quarterback hits. Arians announced Monday that Cappa played the entire game despite breaking his arm in the second quarter.

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