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Nine games in, Bucs offense still battling identity crisis

Quarterback Tom Brady says he and his unit still are trying to figure out who they are.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) sits on the bench next to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in the final moments of Tampa Bay's 38-3 loss Sunday night to the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) sits on the bench next to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in the final moments of Tampa Bay's 38-3 loss Sunday night to the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 13, 2020|Updated Nov. 13, 2020

The pummeling Tom Brady sustained Sunday night before a prime-time TV audience paled next to the one inflicted on his coach and coordinator in the wake of that embarrassing 38-3 loss to the Saints.

Consider this scalding assessment from former Bucs quarterback Chris Simms:

“Go back and look at the (film),” Simms said on the Dan Patrick Show. “It was like they thought, ‘Oh, it’s (Rob Gronkowski), it’s (Antonio) Brown, it’s (Mike) Evans, it’s (Chris) Godwin. You can’t match up with us, we’re too good.’ And it kind of just backfired in their face, obviously.”

And consider this bashing from former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who called the Bucs' offensive game plan he worst he had seen in the NFL this year.

“When Brady was in New England, it was about diversity,” Orlovsky said on ESPN’s Get Up. “A different game plan every week, how to protect him, all that stuff. This week it’s ‘Line up, we’re going to play the same game plan.’ … This is two weeks in a row, Bruce Arians. This is two weeks in a row, Byron Leftwich, where your game plan has stunk.”

Disillusioned fans are wondering when the stench will subside. Six nights before being outcoached and outschemed by the Saints, the Bucs' offense was equally unbalanced and uninspiring in a 25-23 victory against a one-win Giants team.

At arguably the season’s most critical juncture, a roster rife with elite receivers and 1,000-yard rushers, not to mention a quarterback and a tight end bound for Canton, has an identity crisis.

Just who are these guys? Are they a group capable of employing two tight ends, establishing the run and lulling safeties into the box with play action? Are they bent on maximizing their gluttony of receivers with three- and four-wide formations?

Or are they still a work in progress, an assemblage of high-quality accessories still learning how to function together?

“I think we’re trying to figure that out,” Brady said Thursday.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get everybody involved and put together a lot of different pieces that have never been together, including myself.”

Related: Slow starts could finish the Bucs

Only a couple of weeks before falling into a figurative ditch, the Bucs appeared to have fallen into a groove.

In a 38-10 home romp over the Packers, they struck a daunting balance of run (158 yards) and pass (166), scoring three touchdowns in five possessions (not counting a Ronald Jones touchdown set up by an interception of Aaron Rodgers). Jones recorded his third consecutive 100-yard rushing effort, Brady never was sacked, and the Bucs had zero penalty yards.

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At that point, the Bucs seemed to have asserted themselves as a template for play-action proficiency.

Since then, they seem to have weaned themselves off the run.

And gone off the rails.

“It’s your job (as a coordinator) to really put people in position to be successful,” Leftwich said.

“It starts with me. Everything starts with me, and we’ve just got to do a better job of me coaching and us executing. But I trust in the guys. I trust they’ll do the right things. We’ll work at the right things to get things in the right direction.”

Things seemed to begin veering in the opposite direction on a gusty Monday night in East Rutherford, N.J.

After running on five of their seven first downs in the opening quarter against the Giants, the Bucs ran only nine times in their final 24 opportunities of first and 10 or shorter. Then came Sunday night’s embarrassment, when they essentially scrapped the run from the outset.

Related: Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis has a knee injury

With a critical NFC South showdown at Carolina on Sunday, they entered Thursday ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing (averaging 92.1 yards per game) and 24th in rushing attempts (209).

“Obviously, we want to be multiple (threats),” Leftwich said.

“We have the ability to have different plans each week with matchups we like,” Arians said. “Obviously, we want to run the football more than we did the other night, but the game dictated that. So I think with the personnel we have healthy now, it gives us a lot of flexibility.”

Perhaps a firm identity will come with the wins.

“I think the great advantage in football is continuity,” Brady said. "I’ve learned a lot over the years; continuity in the NFL is so important with coach, quarterback, what you’re trying to be as a team.

“I’ve been in a lot of situations, Byron’s been in a lot of situations, (Arians) has been in a lot of situations … but we’re just trying to make it happen together. And you’re going up against other teams that have a lot of continuity, and that’s the disadvantage. But we’ve got to try to make up for it as best we can.”

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