Bucs must solve red zone issues in order to become a top offense

Dirk Koetter's offense has been stagnant from a scoring standpoint, averaging between 18 and 20 points per game for the three seasons Koetter has been calling plays in Tampa.

 AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate found themselves in a peculiar situation this offseason when they visited an escape room in College Station, Texas, after some two-a-day practices at Texas A&M and couldn't find their way out.

"We didn't get it in time, but we finished," Evans said. "There are clues in each room, and you have to work with the other side of the room to know. Each side gets two hints, and you can call and ask for hints. And it's just like little things in a room that you have to find -- they have numbers on the board and you have to add them up, and sometimes it'll mean something and sometimes it won't, or it's something behind a picture that you have to find. It's like a jigsaw puzzle."

"Cam Brate was there too, and we couldn't even use his Harvard education to get us out of there," said Winston, who'd been offered a scholarship to Stanford before choosing FSU. "We didn't get out, so it was kind of like a failure. But we're gonna come back, we're gonna go back to College Station and make it out of an escape room."

On the football field, the Buccaneers' offense hasn't been able to solve the riddle in the red zone either. In fact, when offensive coordinator Todd Monken was asked about their red zone struggles in 2017, he said bluntly, "We chose to suck," something the players took to heart and vow to fix.

"Yeah, I mean it's emphasized every single year," Evans said. "We've just got to go do it, and we didn't do it well at all. Since I've been here, we've always had penalties and setbacks on our own. The defense wouldn't do anything to beat us. We beat ourselves before we even got a chance, so if we don't beat ourselves, we have a good shot."

It's true that a lot of the red zone issues from last season were self-inflicted. In 2017, the Bucs had a 9 percent drop rate in the red zone, sixth highest in the league, and their six red zone drops tied for second most. The three drops on passes thrown to the end zone were tied for most in the league. The Bucs had six red zone penalties, which ranked 13th in the NFL, and while that number could stand to improve, it wasn't as glaring of an issue.

"I can show you seven plays off of the top of my head where if we just played pitch and catch, we would have scored a touchdown," quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. "Instead, maybe we don't convert on third down or we take a sack and now it's second-and-long and we end up kicking a field goal on both of those instead of scoring a touchdown. So it doesn't take a whole lot to improve. It's just a matter of execution."

The Bucs surrendered five sacks in the red zone last season, seventh most in the league. They also had a 13.8 percent drop rate on passes of 5 or fewer air yards (fifth highest in the league), which was actually worse than their 9 percent drop rate for red zone passes. This suggests the Bucs struggle to complete what should be easy "pitch and catch" plays. Also interesting: They had strong numbers on third-and-short and third-and-long in the red zone, but they were ranked 22nd (30 percent) in the league on third-and-medium (4 to 6 yards). On third-and-short, the rate was 66.7 percent (sixth) and on third-and-long, 33.3 percent (fifth).

Coach Dirk Koetter and Winston could spread the wealth around a bit more as well. It's no secret that Evans and Brate are Winston's favorite targets in scoring territory, but designing plays to give others opportunities could lead to less double-teaming of Brate and Evans. That burden also falls on Winston to develop a better rapport with other teammates.

For example, tight end O.J. Howard was targeted six times in the red zone and mustered four catches -- three for touchdowns. The team has to get him more involved with the offense. Slot receiver Adam Humphries went 5-for-5 in red zone targets last season with one receiving touchdown. DeSean Jackson, who caught 3 of 5 passes in the red zone, had two touchdown catches in 2017. Running back Charles Sims, who primarily served as a third-down back, was also 3-for-5 on red zone targets and had a receiving touchdown.

Brate was targeted 12 times and had five catches in the red zone, all for touchdowns. He also had two drops. Evans was targeted a whopping 18 times (25 percent of his routes run) and managed just four catches with three touchdowns. Chris Godwin is another player who should be getting more involved with the offense in 2018, although his red zone play needs to improve.

Although Koetter's playcalling came under scrutiny last season, Bajakian doesn't see other teams executing many plays in the red zone that vary greatly from what the Bucs tried to accomplish in 2017.

"As we've pointed out to our players, we study those teams that are the top in the NFL, and what you realize is that they're not reinventing the wheel," Bajakian said. "I'm thinking I'm going to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and I'm going to get all these great ideas about what they're doing in the red zone. You know what? Their plays are the same plays we're running, except they're playing pitch and catch. Or maybe the quarterback is scrambling and making a play for a touchdown. There's one. The running game plays a part. It all plays a part of how we do in the red zone."