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Buccaneers-Bills Turning Point, Week 7: How does a receiver get that wide open?

[NFL Game Pass]
Published Oct. 23, 2017

A lot can go wrong in the time it takes you to walk from your couch to the refrigerator.

Like, for example, the Bucs blowing a fourth-quarter lead.

Seconds after Tampa Bay jumped in front of Buffalo 27-20 Sunday, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor hit a wide open Deonte Thompson for a 44-yard gain.

That was bad. And then it got worse.

Cornerback Robert McClain drew a 15-yard penalty for his tackle of Thompson. Unnecessary roughness, the referees said.

Two plays later, running back LeSean McCoy ran toward the end zone. No one seemed interested in stopping him. Touchdown. Tie game.

That was bad. And then it got worse.

On the Bucs' first play of their next possession, Adam Humphries lost a fumble. And the Bucs lost the game, 30-27, to fall to 2-4.

That 44-yard pass and catch, though. Tampa Bay's win probability before: 84.9 percent. After McCoy's touchdown: 38.8 percent.

That was everything. The game. The season.

And here's why: On that one play, the Bills, one of the NFL's least efficient pass offenses, expertly exploited the Bucs defense's many flaws.

It revealed that this unit isn't a play call away. It's not a practice away. It's not a player away.

Let's take a closer look at the game-changing play.

The Bills come to the line in a trips formation, with three receivers on the left side and a tight end on the right. When a team lines up in trips, it often is looking to flood one side of the defense with additional receivers to create a hole in its zone coverage. Zone coverage requires a lot of discipline, and formations like this challenge that discipline.

The Bucs rush four defenders and drop seven into zone coverage. Cornerbacks Robert McClain and Vernon Hargreaves line up on the three-receiver side.

The Bills execute a variation of the switch concept. The outside and inside receivers essentially swap spots down the field. The hope is the defense loses track of one of the receivers. That's exactly what happens.

The outside receiver runs a post route to the deep middle part of the field, taking McClain with him. The middle receiver runs to the flat, taking Hargreaves out of the equation. The inside receiver — Deonte Thompson — runs a corner route to the sideline and then continues along the boundary. No one picks him up.

Whose responsibility was he? Rookie safety Justin Evans — who was playing shallow, near linebacker depth — initially picked up Thompson but dropped off.

It is a team game, however. This wasn't a quick strike concept. It took time to develop, and the Bills got the time they needed. An offensive coordinator isn't calling a play like that if the pocket around his quarterback is collapsing all afternoon. The Bucs defensive line generated only six pressures Sunday, including one sack.

Coach Dirk Koetter said McClain was responsible for covering the deep zone and saved a touchdown. If he had recognized sooner, however, that the post route was going to Chris Conte — the safety playing center field — and peeled back, he might have had a chance to contest Thompson's catch. At the same time, if McClain had peeled back, Conte wasn't in good position to pick up the receiver.

This play illustrates why trips formations can be so effective. The hardest thing for a defender to do is check behind him when a player is in front of him.

"I've tried to put that play in multiple times over the years, and the reason you don't see that play very often is it's just a very slow-developing play," Koetter said. "It takes a long time. Taylor stepped up in the pocket so he had a lot of time to throw, and he found the right guy. We didn't handle it the right way with the positioning of our safeties."

Early this season, Hargreaves has been the scapegoat for Tampa Bay's defense. And for good reason. Opposing quarterbacks were picking on him. When throwing into his coverage, they had earned a 128.7 rating.

Sunday's effort showed, in convincing fashion, that the defense's problems extend beyond Hargreaves. The Bucs moved him to nickel corner, and the Bills, who were scoring 17.8 points per game, still put up 30 points. They did what they wanted to do. They gashed the Bucs with the run. They lit them up with the pass.

Buffalo executed 11 explosive plays, more than double what they had been averaging. They executed six pass plays of at least 20 yards and five runs of at least 15 yards.

That's normal for Tampa Bay. More troubling, there are no signs that a turnaround is coming. It has allowed 8.3 explosive plays per game, which is fifth most.

That's bad. And it's getting worse.

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

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