TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 3-5 at the halfway point of the season and 1-2 in the NFC South. Here's a closer look at where they've had success, where they've struggled and how they can get better. We'll also examine what the future holds for coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht.
The decision to load up on offensive weapons in the passing game with Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin is really starting to pay off -- even if the team lacks stability at quarterback. Heading into Week 10, the Bucs are the No. 2 offense in the NFL in yardage at 446.8 yards per game -- just behind the Los Angeles Rams (447.1).
The knock on this group the past few years had been that while the Bucs produced a lot of yardage, they weren't scoring. That has changed dramatically in 2018. Whether it's a result of increased attention to detail, Todd Monken calling plays or a mixture of both, the results are tangible. The Bucs are averaging 27.75 offensive points per game -- sixth most in the league -- versus 19.19 from 2017 (20th) and 20.31 (20th) in 2016. Red zone efficiency is at 63.3 percent versus 49.1 percent in 2017 and 51.9 percent in 2016.
However, the ground game has struggled. Bucs running backs are averaging 2.3 yards before contact per rush -- 22nd in the league. At times, the offensive line has missed assignments, and other times it has been overpowered.
Unlike the Bucs' receiving weapons, who create matchup nightmares for most defenses, they don't have a home-run hitter at running back (although there's hope Ronald Jones blossoms into one). Because of this, they could stand to get more creative with their playcalling, finding smarter ways to get Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jones out in space, through pre-snap motion or misdirection.
The way Norv Turner has completely revamped the Panthers' ground game is worth paying attention to. The Bucs don't have the same personnel, but some of those concepts are workable. He uses jet motions and reverses to dress up screen passes and even inside runs to get linebackers out of position.
Koetter likened what the Bucs did against Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel's play on the double reverse to "Keystone Cops" -- defensive tackles Vita Vea and Beau Allen ran into each other, as did cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Carlton Davis. Koetter also called their tackling "horrendous."
Jason Pierre-Paul has managed to get to the quarterback, but he pretty much has been the lone bright spot on that side of the ball. They aren't playing with a whole lot of anticipation or eye discipline. Tackling has been an issue (their 701 yards after contact for rushing and receiving ranks 23rd in the league). Teams are capitalizing on the fact that they're down two starters at linebacker (middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith) quickly attacking them underneath in recent weeks.
Has firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith and promoting linebackers coach Mark Duffner produced a discernable change? The Bucs haven't played an offense the caliber of New Orleans or Atlanta since Duffner took over, so it's hard to say. But the Panthers game sure felt a lot like Week 4, when the Bucs had zero answers for Matt Nagy's gadget plays in Chicago.
Though the Bucs' 2015 draft yielded four starters (Jameis Winston, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Alexander), and 2017 yielded some promise with Howard, Justin Evans, Godwin and Beckwith, the 2016 class has been very disappointing.
Second-round draft pick Noah Spence has been a healthy scratch for four games in 2018. How he has gone from having Simeon Rice-like potential under Jay Hayes to apparently not knowing how to rush the passer under Brentson Buckner is beyond bewildering. Kicker Roberto Aguayo, who was selected 59th overall, isn't even in the league right now, and Vonn Bell, James Bradberry, Kevin Byard, Carl Nassib (at least he's a Buc now) and Yannick Ngakoue were all still on the board when the Bucs traded up to get him.
Cornerback Ryan Smith and offensive guard Caleb Benenoch have recorded starts but are really backups at best, as is linebacker Devante Bond, who just can't stay healthy. Those three have, however, provided serviceable value.
The only hope for this class right now is cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, their first-round pick that year who suffered a torn labrum in the season opener and is out for the season. Hargreaves suffered through some real growing pains in 2016 and 2017, so it wasn't looking good, but he played arguably one of the best games of his career in Week 1 against New Orleans. There's no way to know which way he would have gone this year.
It's too soon to determine if the Bucs' decision to pass on safety Derwin James in favor of Vea was the right call, but Vea missed almost all of training camp and the preseason because of a strained calf, and in five games, he has produced only two tackles and does not have a sack. James sits atop ESPN's midseason rookie rankings. Sometimes the most obvious choice is the best one.
Should Koetter and Light return?
Koetter is 17-23 as head coach of the Bucs (.425). His first season in 2016 they did go 9-7, but then were 5-11 in 2017. Still, the Glazers were encouraged that they had 10 games decided by one score or less (they were 3-7 in them) and players continued to fight hard under Koetter.
He has produced one of the NFL's most potent offenses, but it should not have taken him until after Week 6 to fire Mike Smith. It should have happened at the end of last season, instead of simply parting ways with one positional coach (Hayes).
Jack Del Rio was out as head coach in Oakland. He should have at least gotten a phone call. Or the team should have taken a page from what folks are doing on the offensive side of the ball -- looking to the college ranks -- since the league continues to move in that direction.
If the Bucs part ways with Koetter, they'd be disrupting what they've been building the past four years on offense. Keeping Koetter might not sit well with the fans if this winds up being another losing season, but he is their fourth head coach since Jon Gruden was fired after the 2008 season. Being in a state of constant change has held this organization back, and it might just be easier to bring in a new defensive coordinator.
As for Licht -- the Glazers have been happy with how the team has been able to not only draft but re-sign players like Evans, Brate and Marpet to long-term contracts.
Licht will always have to answer for that Aguayo pick and that underperforming 2016 draft class, and the Bucs have brought in players who don't necessarily match the scheme -- T.J. Ward was an "in-the-box" safety brought in to play in a scheme that favors versatility, and Carlton Davis and Hargreaves were known as press-man corners in college and have been asked to play "off" for the Bucs.
Licht will also have to answer for failed free agents Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Alterraun Verner and Bruce Carter under former coach Lovie Smith. Winston was drafted on Licht's watch, too, so his handling of that situation will play a role. And he could have stepped in and forced Koetter to fire Mike Smith.
Still, Licht's crew seems to be better at evaluating talent than predecessor Mark Dominik, who was better known for his creativity with the salary cap and contracts. It's really just about better marrying the right players with the scheme.