Huh, here we are. I just crossed off the box on my calendar labeled ‘BREAK CAMP.’ Weird.
Though the preseason isn’t over, training camp as we’ve seen it is – and as a result, we now have a (better) understanding of the team, the scheme and expectations leading into the 2019 regular season. Though there is still plenty to be determined over the next two weeks before the roster is cut down to its semi-final 53, why don’t we take a look at some of the things we HAVE learned thus far in each phase of the ball.
-The Art of the Checkdown
Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said they aren’t necessarily looking for "money throws" from quarterback Jameis Winston, they’re looking for "money decisions." It may seem a bit contradictory to the "No Risk-It, No Biscuit" philosophy Head Coach Bruce Arians employs with his offenses, but for every deep ball, there are probably three-to-four shorter, higher-percentage completions mixed in. Arians has said before, there’s a touchdown and a checkdown on every play – it’s up to the quarterback to determine which to go for. This camp, we’ve seen Winston (smartly) take the latter a lot more. Make no mistake, there have been 40-yard bombs to the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but there have also been a lot of shorter routes going to O.J. Howard, Cam Brate or Justin Watson, for example.
It’s also aided by an increased involvement by the running backs – and not just on the ground. While there have been handoffs and bouncing runs to the outside, especially for the purposes of setting up play action which is also an integral part of this offense, running backs have been utilized on shorter routes a lot more. The screen game is there and it’s providing an opportunity for backs like Ronald Jones and Dare Ogunbowale. Consider that Ogunbowale had 34 yards rushing in Friday’s preseason opener, but added 54 yards on three catches for an 18.0 yards-per-reception average. Those passes weren’t all air yards, either. No, they were, you guessed it, screens. Winston, along with the other Bucs signal callers, is now taking advantage of checking down to his running backs more and more and they are rewarding him with long catch-and-runs. Basically, it’s about getting them the ball and letting them do what they do best: evade defenders on the ground.
The other checkdown option is often a tight end. Coming into camp, the narrative was floating around about Arians not prominently featuring tight ends in his offense. But as I’ve stressed – when you have guys like Cam Brate and O.J. Howard, you use them. As camp has gone on, that’s become very evident. Both Howard and Brate have gotten their touches with the offense incorporating a lot of 12 personnel looks (one running back, two tight ends). Arians was asked about the possibility of carrying four tight ends on the final 53-man roster. His response?
"We have a bunch of times, because we’re a two-tight end offense.”
Between the backs and tight ends, Winston has plenty of options when it comes to the checkdown. It not only results in more completions, but also in his ability to get the ball out quicker, which comes as a relief for the offensive line. They don’t have to hold the pocket as long trying to wait for long passing plays to develop on a regular basis.
While players and coaches alike have estimated we’ve seen 10-20% of the defense as a whole, we’ve seen enough to know that this Bucs’ scheme will look drastically different from anything Tampa Bay has done in recent years. Also, let’s reiterate that one more time so it hits home – we haven’t even seen the half of this defense.
“That’s really what practice is,” defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said last week. “We’re just getting all our installs in now and right now, going into the preseason game, we’re just really showing a lot of our base stuff and really, like you said, [trying] not to reveal what we want to do. So, really right now we just want to get the base fundamentals in and understand the basis of the system, then once we get into the season, everything’s fair game.”
The common sentiment is that Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is known for his propensity to attack, which is true. He runs a very aggressive-style base 3-4 scheme. But don’t get aggressiveness and blitzing confused. There are ways to attack that don’t involve bringing an extra man or two and if we’ve seen anything so far in training camp, it’s been exactly that. To be clear, the concept of showing pressure, while not actually bringing it, isn’t new. It’s not even all that rare, either. Especially in this scheme, which is a one-gap 3-4 base, your base front has five down players – three interior defensive linemen and two outside linebackers. If the defense showed its hand based on the formation – that would mean a blitz every time. But we’ve seen it doesn’t work like that. Not even close.
“We try to be aggressive but we try to be smart,” Bowles said earlier in camp. “The biggest thing for us is communication and understanding what everybody has to do and then trying to execute.”
It’s really the unpredictability that fuels the aggressiveness. As an opposing offense, you could potentially see the exact same look three-four-five different times and yet get something different in each of those cases. Subsequently, the defense could show three-four-five different looks and do the same thing each time. Basically, it’s controlled anarchy. There are no tendencies to hold onto. There are no rules to grasp and prepare for. You’ll see guys like Ndamukong Suh on the outside at the five-technique or you’ll see linebackers creep up and all of a sudden realize you’re looking at seven men on the line of scrimmage… pre-snap. Post-snap is a whole different story and while you’re deciding who to look at, some offensive lineman is trying to figure out who to block now that an interior defender is on the outside and a smaller, faster linebacker has taken his place in the middle. It means confusion, unpredictability and a whole lot of fun for Bucs fans.
Speaking of Suh, the newly minted Buccaneer has had time to grasp the system and therefore, has been able to help his teammates grasp it, too. A 10-year veteran knows a thing or two, and a guy with Suh’s football IQ knows more. If fellow interior lineman Vita Vea, who’s currently "week to week" with a knee injury, does take that proverbial step forward – it will probably be due in part to having Suh in the room. Suh has also taken to helping more developing players, like outside linebacker Noah Spence, who Suh says he’ll often sit next to in meetings.
Another new player making a big impact on the defensive side of the ball is linebacker Devin White. Except White is new because he’s new to the league period; a rookie. Even with that freshman status, White is running the linebacker room. With veteran Lavonte David currently sidelined with a knee injury, it’s been up to White to shoulder a lot of the load. He’s wearing the green dot on his helmet – giving him the constant communication to Bowles on the field – and making the calls for the defense. That was always the plan even with David healthy. White has handled the responsibility well. He’s probably not progressing as quickly as he could with a healthy David next to him, but David is in his ear on the sideline and it’s been blatantly apparent why the Bucs were so eager to take White at fifth overall in this past draft. He’s instinctual, he’s smart, he’s aggressive and he’s a natural vocal leader. The whole package.
View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Preseason Week 2 matchup against the Miami Dolphins.
The kicking competition so far in camp has been rolling (just like these puns). Matt Gay booted a 48-yard game winner in Friday’s home contest against the Dolphins a week after setting a record at Heinz Field with a 55-yarder.
Cairo Santos has hit from 61 yards himself in practice and has been accurate as ever when called upon. He made a 23-yarder in the fourth quarter of Friday’s game.
Coach Arians has been adamant that even after Gay’s game-winner on Friday, there has been no decision made. Knowing the history here, I’m not going to go so far to say the Bucs’ kicking woes are over. It’s too early for that. But with a competition that has been as close as this one has been, it seems Tampa Bay has two pretty great options no matter which one they decide to go with.
The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.