TAMPA, Fla. -- Twelve weeks into the season and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense, led by six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and an all-star cast of skill players that would rival any fantasy roster three years ago, is looking disjointed and frankly, disappointing given the enormous expectations.
“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” coach Bruce Arians said Sunday, after back-to-back 27-24 losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams. “You don’t just throw guys out there with names. You’ve gotta practice. You’ve gotta learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.”
With no offseason or preseason games because of COVID-19, the Bucs have had close to four months to figure it out in practice with their new pieces. But their patchwork roster has been no match against the league’s better teams who have been together longer -- the Chiefs, Rams and New Orleans Saints – and all looked like Super Bowl contenders while the Bucs appear to be on the outside looking in. They mustered one first down and were outscored 17-0 by the Chiefs in the first quarter Sunday, with the final score making the game appear much closer than it actually was.
At 7-5 and with four winnable games after the bye week -- against the Minnesota Vikings (5-6), Detroit Lions (4-7) and Atlanta Falcons (4-7) twice -- the Bucs remain in playoff contention. But what can be done in their week of self-scouting for Brady and the coaching staff, to resolve some of their offensive issues?
Let's answer some of the bigger questions.
Is there friction between Arians and Brady?
If there is, neither has let on.
But Arians has drawn scrutiny with his comments about Brady, whom he does not protect publicly when asked about mistakes. Arians said last week he believed Brady was getting “confused” on disguised coverages, which peeved Brady’s former teammate Rob Ninkovich so much he said on ESPN’s Get Up! Friday, "I'm giving Tom Brady a new head coach because Bruce Arians at this point right now -- he's not cutting it. All his interviews he is throwing players under the bus. … I don't think Tom Brady gets confused by coverages. ... It's the first time Tom Brady has ever had a head coach throw him under the bus like this."
Arians will tell you he's merely being honest, and no player is immune from his weekly accountability sheet. Brady will also tell you that he can handle tough coaching. But critics have questioned its effectiveness in a public forum, when Bill Belichick would simply say, “We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Other critics have said Brady looks like he’s running someone else’s offense. When asked about those two things Sunday, Brady said, “It’s just external noise that when you’re losing, that’s what you deal with, so I love playing for the guys that I play with, the coaches, the whole organization’s been unbelievable. I think we’ve just gotta go out -- I’ve certainly gotta go out and do a better job the last four weeks of the year.”
A certain amount of friction would be somewhat understandable coming off back-to-back losses in games they believed they needed to win, with two strong personalities who are both hypercompetitive. The big thing is, Arians and Brady must find a way to work together effectively, and they seem to be doing that. Brady has gotten all the players he has wanted. He also has heavy input on the playcalling.
What’s up with the playcalling?
The Bucs could do more to tailor the offense to what Brady does best.
During Brady's last three seasons, the Patriots used motion at the snap on 253 of 3,237 snaps (7.8% of offensive plays), 10th most in the league.
Against the Chiefs, the Bucs had one play the entire game with motion at the snap -- a faked jet sweep on third-and-goal at 11:53 in the third quarter. They used motion at the snap just once against the Rams Monday night, too.
The Bucs have used motion at the snap a total of 20 times this season on 767 snaps (2.6%) -- the fewest of any team in the league.
“We’ve done it in the past. We did it for years,” Arians said. “Peyton Manning never wanted anybody in motion. So each quarterback is so different of what they want the motion for. We have used jet motion a little bit. I’m not a big fan of it if it’s gonna disrupt what you’re doing versus just blocking people.”
While using motion pre-snap helps the quarterback gather information as to the type of coverage the defense is lining up in, using motion at the snap creates confusion and gets defenders out of position. It can work well not only in jazzing up the run game, but also the passing game and even to take play-action concepts to the next level. In fact, in the past three seasons, the Patriots gained an average of 9.49 yards per play when utilizing play-action with a screen pass in conjunction with motion at the snap.
“We do as much as he wants,” Arians said of Brady’s desire for motion before the snap. "That's the motion that we use."
As far as play-action, the Bucs have used it sparingly -- five times against the Chiefs and eight times against the Rams. But Brady was 4-for-5 for 83 yards and a touchdown using play-action on Sunday.
“I’d love to [use it] when we’re not 17 down early,” Arians said.
The thing is, even though the Bucs held Clyde Edwards-Helaire to 37 rushing yards, the Chiefs utilized play-action on 17 dropbacks against the Bucs. The Bucs rank 30th in the league in play-action frequency (18% of dropbacks) despite Brady being second in the league with 9.1 yards per dropback using play-action, according to ESPN Statistics & Information.
Arians also has been asked multiple times if he'd consider taking back playcalling from offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. The answer each time has been no.
What’s up with all the deep balls?
Why were there so many deep pass attempts when they haven’t been working for Brady lately? An argument could be made the Bucs need more high-percentage plays.
The Bucs were 1-for-19 on pass attempts of 20 or more air yards heading into this game, although he did fare better Sunday, going 4-for-7 in that department.
Well, for one, the Bucs found themselves in too many third-and-long situations. But also, the Chiefs lined up in Cover 0 (no deep defender) on five pass attempts, the second-most snaps he has seen against that coverage since 2017. The only other time he has seen more? Against the Chiefs last year with eight plays. They also gave him the second-most single-high safety looks he has seen all year (37) behind only the Los Angeles Chargers (45 snaps) and one more than the Rams. What is this suggesting? Teams aren’t respecting Brady’s deep ball or the players he has execute it.
“We can hit every throw," Brady said. "So, if we miss it, we miss it. We’re gonna keep taking ‘em.”
But how do you counter Cover 0? Make them pay by going for the jugular and that’s what the Bucs tried. Brady attempted to do this three times with Mike Evans Sunday (the first came on the opening drive but slipped through Evans’ hands). Unfortunately, Brady went 0-for-3 on these plays with Evans and 1-for-5 overall, with his only completion coming on a second-and-10 in the fourth quarter, with Cam Brate running 5 yards to the flat.
Why did it take until the fourth quarter for Brady to finally opt for an underneath option with pressure in his face? Why did Brady attempt to lob it up to Antonio Brown on third-and-3 in the first quarter on a 20-yard throw coming out of the backfield when he had no additional protection (just five offensive linemen)? The route should have been shortened for a 5- or 10-yard completion.
“There’s a bunch of options and you can also check the protection to get it picked up and then take the deep shot,” Arians said. “We’ve just gotta do a better job of game-planning that. We know it was coming. They’re a Cover 0 [team]. Spags [Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] has always been a Cover 0 guy. We just didn’t handle it well enough in certain situations.”