Little was expected of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Jameis Winston was suspended four game. But two games into the season, the NFL hasn’t figured out how to slow their passing attack led by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the league’s biggest disappointments as they finished just 5-11 despite having elite offensive personnel. There were many factors to this, including one of the weaker defensive units, Jameis Winston’s shoulder injury, and an unsettled offensive line. Expectations were low for them entering the year despite their reinvestment into the defense, in part because of Winston’s four-game suspension.
Two weeks into the 2018 season with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, and this looks like the potential offense their staff was hoping to see last year.
The Buccaneers lead the league with 405 passing yards per-game, and have done it against what were two elite defenses in 2017. The New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles were left caught completely off-guard from the offensive assault Tampa Bay laid on them.
After looking at the film and charting Fitzpatrick’s passing attempts, it’s not a two-game rouse or fluke that this happened. I’ll show three different areas where the Buccaneers are dominating their competition thus far.
Air Raid Incorporation
What’s really stood out thus far is the adjustments to the route variety by head coach Dirk Koetter. Koetter’s traditionally been of the Air Coryell cloth, focusing on creating chunk plays with vertical routes that can open windows underneath from chip blockers who buy extra time for slow-developing plays. This worked well in his first season with Winston and the team in 2016, and the franchise was so impressed that they dumped Lovie Smith to keep Koetter.
But in 2017, the offensive line couldn’t handle the burden, Winston’s development stalled, and the additions of O.J. Howard and Desean Jackson just didn’t work. Expectations were set one-year too early, but the failure forced Koetter to adjust his approach.
The big plays came Week 1 with ease, as Fitzpatrick complete four of five passes beyond 20 yards, including three touchdowns. Instead of forcing these plays, though, they were determined by pre-snap looks that Koetter helped manufacture, and also dangerous tactics by the Saints.
After having so much success running 4-2-5 alignments in 2017, the Saints tried to rely heavily on Cover 1 and Cover 3 with Marcus Williams as their hero single-high playmakers. This was a considerable mistake against an offense with as much talent as the Buccaneers, though they likely didn’t expect the mixture of formations thrown at them.
The Air Raid prioritizes having as many receivers on the field to produce easier pre- and post-snap reads. This includes having numbers advantages as well as stripping away alignment disguises. The short-range throws also play to Fitzpatrick’s desire to dump the ball off quickly to his first-read, which is more likely to be the correct play by utilizing bunch formations.
What helped set this play up against the Eagles was their ability to run the same offensive principles as they showed against the Saints, despite Fitzpatrick cutting his deep shots to just three total. The Eagles tried to take those away, and he punished them with quick-hitting underneath routes.
This is where blending Air Raid staples such as bunch alignments works so well with Koetter’s willingness to use chip blockers and Air Coryell route patterns.
Week 1, Fitzpatrick accomplished a fantastic week with 12 passes of 11 yards or deeper, with 15 coming behind the line-of-scrimmage up to 10 yards. Week 2 was a different usage dictated by the defense, as he attempted 21 passes underneath 11 yards, and just 11 beyond that figure.
This balance wasn’t an option in the past. Credit to Koetter for expanding his playbook and the players for executing at a very high-level thus far.
The obvious elephant in the room is just how talented the receivers are on this Buccaneers team. Mike Evans destroyed a near-elite Marshon Lattimore in Week 1, and the unit made corners like Ronald Darby, Ken Crawley, and Jalen Mills look incapable of playing in the NFL. That of course, isn’t the case.
Even a simple play like a crossing route that pits O.J. Howard against a linebacker became a 75-yard touchdown in an instant. The offense isn’t having to work extremely hard despite having a non-functional run game because of the damage that’s being done early in downs on short passes, and also the home-run ability of every player except Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries.
For example on the play below, the Buccaneers run a pattern-match buster with the post-dig combination. This devastated pattern-match looks last year as the safety has to make a split-second read to go with the underneath route or stay and help, while the corner must continue upfield, or take an out-breaking route underneath.
The weak-side safety on the top of the screen is late to rollover to help, and there’s simply too much room for the corner to make up the difference in speed. The margin for error for Fitzpatrick is also larger than usual because of great blocking.
There was no shortage of example of Evans, Chris Godwin, Howard, and Jackson winning their individual matchups. If the defense plays zone, Fitzpatrick’s been quick recognize it and has had ample time to deal with zone blitzes. Against man, he has the advantage every time as long as the throw is semi-accurate.
Jackson puts so much stress on the defense with his speed and ball tracking ability that eventually play-callers will have to seriously contemplate stop calling pattern-matches. His 75-yarder to open the game against Philadelphia was similar to the one above, where Malcolm Jenkins incorrectly guesses a dig route, and the play is essentially over there. Mills had no chance of running with Jackson without Jenkins there to slow him.
There’s been a lot of positive developments for the Buccaneers through two games. The offensive line is playing drastically better in pass protection, often able to hold up without any significant help from backs or tight ends. And Koetter offset the talent difference in the trenches against the Eagles with more short, quick-hitting passes to help Fitzpatrick avoid a meltdown when pressured.
Fitzpatrick’s been excellent on his own, too. He can identify mismatches quickly and is great when going to his first-read. He’s been a top-tier backup in the NFL throughout his career because of his ability to play stretches at a legitimately high-level before its all crashed down.
The key to avoiding another implosion is clearly outline in situational play. His third-down play has been astonishing, as he’s completed 10 of 11 throws on 3rd-and-9 or less situations, with all but one of those attempts past the first-down marker. On four 3rd-and-long attempts last game, just one was past the marker.
If defenses can get him into longer conversion down plays, the Buccaneers aren’t going to trust him, and he’ll revert to checking down more despite being a gunslinger in early downs.
He’s also avoided pressure, being sacked twice, with one of those his own fault. And I only considered eight of his 59 qualifying attempts (taking out two throwaways) to come while pressured. That pressure-rate is unlikely to continue all season long.
Winston or Fitzmagic?
The obvious answer here is that it’s a wait-and-see. Fitzpatrick is good in a clean pocket, but the on-field demons that’ve followed him throughout his career suggest that this start is another one of his berserker streaks he can pull off. Once defenses start to penetrate the line more and shore-up coverage busts, there’ll be less easy completions.
Regression is due as Fitzpatrick cannot sustain his 78.7 completion rate. So the question is how far he falls, and whether he’ll sink into the void of being a good backup but a subpar starter due to turnovers like he has so many stops before.
If the Buccaneers think he will, then Winston offers a skill set that can be valuable, but also has limitations. Winston’s also reckless with the ball and doesn’t get the ball out as quickly as Fitzpatrick can at his best. But it’s also time for Winston to show he is a franchise player, so he must play to demonstrate that.
If Fitzpatrick continues to play well and the Buccaneers decide that Winston isn’t the guy they want representing the franchise for the future anyways due to on-field and/or off-field reasons, then they could entertain trading the former No. 1 overall pick. Though it’s unlikely they’d get much of a return after two strong quarterback classes and another that may have a few worthy top-five picks approaching.
With their next four games against the Steelers, Bears, injury-depleted Falcons, and Browns, there’s enough competition to test the viability of all three separating factors spelled out in this piece.
Sit back and enjoy the Fitzmagic, Buccaneers fans.