TAMPA — It’s not a problem. (Yet.) You can’t call it a trend. (At this point.)
It’s barely even worth mentioning, except the entire season could be hanging in the balance.
I’m talking about the Bucs offense, which is undoubtedly one of the best in the NFL and yet still not what you expected. There was supposed to be non-stop cannon blasts and touchdowns galore. We were supposed to see the NFL’s historians running breathlessly down the sidelines with cameras and calculators to memorialize it all.
Instead, we’ve gotten … a pretty good start to the season.
Maybe my expectations were too high, or my pessimism is too entrenched, but Tampa Bay’s offense has not had much of a “wow” factor through the first four weeks of the season. Not considering the number of former Pro Bowl players jammed in that 11-man huddle.
Tom Brady? He’s done pretty well. Chris Godwin? Not too bad. Mike Evans? Hasn’t had a lot of big gains. Ronald Jones? He’s been shoved to the side. Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown? They’ve been in and out of the doctor’s office.
Coach Bruce Arians was asked on Monday if, despite a 3-1 record, his team had yet to play up to its potential.
“Oh, there’s no doubt. There’s no doubt. I think offensively, especially,” he said. “It’s still not clicking on all cylinders like it should be. We look really good for a series or two and then we still keep shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties or missed assignments. They’ve got to be corrected and it’s on the players. We’ve talked about it enough, it’s on the players.”
Yes, there are extenuating circumstancing. Brown missed one game, and Gronkowski missed another. The Rams and Patriots have tough defenses, and the rain in New England didn’t help a bit.
But there was a sense that Tampa Bay’s offense had found itself at the end of last season, and that Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were finally in synch. The Bucs were putting more players in motion and getting more out of the play-action pass than ever before.
The running game came alive in the postseason and the Bucs were putting 30 points on the board week after week against quality defenses. With everyone coming back in 2021, you had the feeling Tampa Bay would be in the cruising lane to the end zone.
Except it hasn’t happened quite like that.
The Bucs scored only one touchdown against the Patriots, and it was the first time since Arians arrived that they won a game while scoring fewer than 20 points. Tampa Bay held the ball a lot longer and outgained New England by nearly 100 yards, but struggled near the goal line. In fact, in the 14 drives that have started since Gronkowski fractured his ribs against the Rams, the Bucs have only scored two touchdowns, while settling for five field goals.
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“We didn’t execute. We didn’t execute at all,” Arians said of the red zone against the Patriots. “Our routes weren’t (good), our spacing wasn’t very good, we didn’t throw the ball very well down there. A couple things that we thought we were going to have, they had mixed up (the defense) and doubled the guys we thought we’d have (open).
“It’s a disappointing part of the game to watch us play in the red zone that game.”
So how concerning is all of this?
Not terribly, I would imagine. There are adjustments that need to be made, and Brady is going to have to find some rhythm with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard at tight end. But this is still the same group that set a franchise record for scoring in 2020 and could do so again this season.
If you subtract defensive scores, the Bucs are averaging 27 points a game through the season’s first month. Last year, the offense averaged 30.3 points, so that’s about a 10 percent drop in production.
Would we be looking at this differently if two of their four field goals against New England had been turned into touchdowns? Probably. After all, the Bucs are second in the NFL in passing yards and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to have success throwing the ball.
But the struggles in the running game are ongoing and you have to wonder if defenses have made adjustments to what the Bucs have been doing.
It took a couple of months for Brady and Co. to get in a groove last year and there’s still plenty of time in 2021. There’s no reason to think they won’t hit their stride just like they did a year. There’s certainly no reason to panic.
At least not yet.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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