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Bucs Hit Play-Calling Groove in Red Zone

Posted Dec 10, 2015

Wednesday notes: How has the Bucs' offense shrugged off its problems inside the 20? Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston have found the team's red zone identity…Plus a new MIKE starter and more.

The five-yard pass Jameis Winston threw to Mike Evans for the winning points in Sunday's 23-19 downing of the Atlanta Falcons was the 12th touchdown toss the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie quarterback has made in the red zone this year. He has not been intercepted once in that part of the field.

READ: WINSTON ALMOST PERFECT IN RED ZONE

That TD-INT ratio in the red zone is impressive for any quarterback, says Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith, whether he's a rookie or a 10-year veteran.

"You probably can't say that about most quarterbacks in the league," said Smith. "And that is an area where one of the worst things you can do is throw an interception, down in the red zone. For the most part, you should at least get three points. You're taking points off the board if you do that. It's critical everywhere, protecting the football, but he has done a good job with that. That's just a part of the decision-making he's going through throughout [the season]. He's made good decisions. We've seen that growth throughout the year."

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That production has helped Winston compile a 93.0 passer rating inside the 20 this season, which ranks 17th in the league among players with at least 20 passes in that situation, just behind Drew Brees and Blake Bortles and just ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton. There are six other quarterbacks with at least a dozen red zone TD passes and no interceptions, including Cam Newton and fellow rookie Marcus Mariota, but Smith is right that most of the league's passers have been picked off at some point in that crucial area. It's happened four times to Eli Manning and Matt Ryan, three times to Tom Brady, and so on.

That also doesn't take into account the five times Winston has converted a red zone drive with his feet. Newton, one of the leading candidate for NFL MVP, is the only quarterback who has scored more rushing touchdowns this season. Tampa Bay's offense improved significantly in the red zone in the third quarter of the season, and that can be traced largely to Winston's individual development, which continues at an impressive pace.

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“I just think the red zone is a reflection of Jameis overall," said Smith. "I think you could just take Jameis in red zone, Jameis on third down, Jameis on decision making. We’ve talked about that every week. He’s had a very steady progression of his improvement throughout the year."

Through the first half of the season, the Buccaneers had a 42.9% rate of converting red zone trips into touchdowns, which was among the worst marks in the league at that point. In the last four games, however, the Bucs are nine-for-12 in that situation, an excellent 75.0% rate. In the process, the team has gotten its overall mark in that category up to 52.5%, which still ranks just 21st in the league but is getting close to the team's own benchmark for red zone production.

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"Our goal is 55 percent touchdowns in the red zone," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "You want points every time. In the NFL, [if] you get inside the 20-yardline you should have a field goal in the bag. We had a great week last week – 75 percent. We really should have had 100 percent. We should’ve made that other play, but we had to settle for the field goal. I think part of it is you learn your players.
Maybe we’ve calmed down our scheme a little bit. We’re a running football team, so we are running it a little bit more. You learn your guys, everybody fits in their role. I think two areas that we have improved a lot this season since those first couple of games are red zone and third down."

The one failed play to which Koetter alluded was a third-and-five pass to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins over the middle, and it came very close to succeeding. Seferian-Jenkins had just returned from a nine-game absence and the Bucs put him right back into the mix in their red-zone scheming, but for the most part Koetter and his crew have already figured out which of their plays are working best down there.

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"We were maybe trying to do too many things in the red zone instead of – after kind of figuring out what our identity is – stay in our lane and do what we do and not necessarily do what we were trying to do in Atlanta or something like that," said Koetter, referring to the first win over the Falcons.

Winston doesn't often take sole credit for any of his successes on the field, and this is no different. In his opinion, it's the play-calling in the red zone that has made the biggest difference over the last month.

"I think just Coach Koetter [is the key]," said Winston. "I forget what week it was when we just basically made the change like, ‘Hey, we have to start scoring in the red zone.’ That was hurting us earlier in the season. I think the past four games we’ve reached our goal for our red zone protection so it’s been pretty good."

* On Wednesday, the Buccaneers began their first week of practice without rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, the team's starting middle linebacker who is serving a four-game league suspension.

They use the rest of the week to figure out exactly who is going to take Alexander's place as the signal-caller on defense.

"We have a plan," said Smith. "As far as who we're going to go with, we're going to go through the week, really. We've talked about Bruce Carter, Danny Lansanah, guys that have both played that position. We always like options when you have situations like this that come up. We feel pretty good. Of course, there's a reason why Kwon Alexander was our starter but we feel pretty good about the group of linebackers we're going to put on the field this week."

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Lansanah has manned the starting strongside, or SAM, spot all season but last year he became the first player in team history to start games at all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 front. Carter was also a versatile player during his four seasons in Dallas and he started 11 games at MIKE linebacker in 2012.

"My mentality is I try to do whatever they ask me to do at the best of my ability," said Lansanah. "I played it last year and made plays. Whatever they ask me to do, whoever they ask to play there is what they're going to do, and hopefully that person playing there makes plays."

Overall, Lansanah started 11 games last year and recorded 78 tackles last year to finish third on the team. He also contributed 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, eight passes defensed and a team-high two non-offensive touchdowns. It's that last stat that most impressed Smith.

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"He was the only player we had that scored two defensive touchdowns," said the coach. "That's more than a lot of offensive guys scored. He's been around the ball. Again, he's a smart player [which is evident] any time you can play multiple positions. There's a reason why he's been in the league this long. We can play him at a lot of different positions. He started at WILL when Lavonte missed a couple games last year; of course he started at MIKE and SAM. Not many guys can do that. Again, we're going to miss Kwon quite a bit but we're okay going forward these four weeks."

Lansanah is confident he could keep the Bucs' defense humming if he steps into the MIKE role or stays at SAM.

"I did it before," he said. "It's nothing new to me. Last year – I don't like to talk about the past, but last year I proved that I could play it. If they put me there I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."

"Towards the end of the year we're kind of picking it up as a group and starting to make more plays, and impact plays. So we've just got to pick it up even more and always have Kwon in back of our minds."

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The linebacker the Buccaneers would most like to see on the field again is Alexander. His suspension will cover the last four games of the regular season, so if he gets another chance to play in 2015 it will mean Tampa Bay made the playoffs.

"We fight for him," said Winston. "That’s another motivation that we have as a team. We fight to get our brother back on the field because Kwon is the quarterback of the defense. Kwon is just important to this team as anyone is. He’s the head guy. He’s the one with the mic on his helmet. We’re definitely going to miss Kwon, but I know he’s going to keeping working. Kwon isn’t going to use this a period to just take a break, because in Kwon’s mind he’s going to be preparing for a game later on in this season and that’s the right mentality to have."

* Carter, who also could start at either MIKE or SAM in Alexander's absence, actually missed last Sunday's game due to a concussion sustained in Week 12. However, he returned to full participation in practice on Wednesday.

In fact, only two players were completely held out of the week's first workout: guard Logan Mankins and defensive end Jacquies Smith. Smith is trying to recover from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the win over Atlanta, but Mankins is listed on the official injury report as being "not injury related." In other words, it was a routine day of rest for the 11th-year veteran, and overall Lovie Smith referred to the Bucs' roster as being in "pretty good shape" after Wednesday's practice.

Linebacker Lavonte David was added to the report after "tweaking" an ankle, but tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee), defensive end George Johnson (calf) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (hand) all got in some work after sitting out last week. Cherilus was a full participant while Johnson and McCoy were both limited.