As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into their late-season bye week, the coaching staff has the data from the team's first 12 games already gathered, analyzed and ready for a deep review. One major goal in that review will be figuring out how the offense can get back to the quick starts that characterized the first half of the season.
Because the usual approach to scouting an opponent is to thoroughly review its last four games, the Buccaneers' staff has also worked up a subset of that review that covers Tampa Bay's last four outings, which have definitely not included fast starts on offense…or on defense, for that matter.
"The self-scouting and stuff that we do is [on] ourselves," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We've got every play listed that we've run all season – the yards, the average, the completions – everything statistically for the entire season [and] for the last four ballgames, which is usually what another team breaks down. So, you have [statistics on] yourself for the whole season and the last four to know what the other team is looking at."
That four-game subset would cover a 38-3 loss to New Orleans, a 46-23 win over Carolina and the consecutive 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs. In each of those outings, Tampa Bay's opponent scored first, sometimes repeatedly. The Bucs faced a 17-0 first-quarter deficit against the Chiefs and didn't score in the Saints loss until it was 38-0. The Rams took leads of 7-0 and 14-7 in the first half. Even the game in Charlotte, which the Bucs won going away, started off with the Panthers in a 7-0 lead after the visitors turned the ball over on their first drive.
This is in stark contrast to the first half of the season, particularly the first five games. After five weeks the Bucs had a 48-14 scoring edge in first-quarter play and had scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the game three times, plus a field goal to start another game. The Bucs didn't score on their first drive against Carolina in Week Two but then quickly notched two touchdowns before the first quarter was over.
Over their last five games, however, the Buccaneers have only scored 10 first-quarter points and have not turned any of their opening drives into touchdowns. In the same five games, the opposition has scored 59 first-quarter points. Coaches tend to expect good results on offense in the early going because they generally have their first 15 plays specifically scripted out. Recently, those scripts have been working out a lot better for the Bucs' opponents.
"We have to start games faster defensively," said Arians. "That was a big emphasis all week, and even the night before the game in talking to them. I said the same thing offensively. We've got to convert those early third downs and get some scores like we did earlier in the season."
The Buccaneers failed to convert each of their four third-down tries in the first quarter on Sunday, despite the fact they needed only six, three, two and two yards to be successful. In their loss to Kansas City and New Orleans and their narrow escape from New York with a win in Week Eight, the Buccaneers only converted five of 18 first-half third down tries.
Against the Chiefs, the Buccaners were getting solid gains on first and second down in the first quarter but were not able to quickly adjust to Kansas City's blitz scheme on third downs.
"I feel like it's really first-quarter stuff – catching up with their gameplan versus us and adjusting to it, because we were in very manageable third downs," said Arians. "They had a blitz zero package that we didn't handle well the first couple – who was hot, what they were supposed to do. [We] kind of ironed it out on the sideline [but] it led to another interception late when the ball went off the helmet. It was the same blitz, but we just didn't correctly adjust. Tom [Brady] was perfect on it and we didn't adjust to the right angle of the route for the zero blitz. Other than that, I thought when we adjusted, we played pretty, pretty solid."
The Buccaneers need to get back to fast starts on offense so they can avoid early double-digit deficits and be able to use their entire offense. Arians said the Buccaneers would like to get running back Ronald Jones more touches – he had 103 yards of offense on 10 touches – and utilize more play-action fakes, but those things are either harder to do or less effective when the team is playing from behind early on.
"I'd love to if we're not 17-down early," said Arians. "The nice thing about this one [was] we stayed with the gameplan and clawed back in it. I look at the game and three possessions offensively. Kicking a field goal on the first drive [of the second half] when we've got first-and-goal on the five[-yard line]. We got three [points], but seven was huge. Then, the two scoring opportunities where if we just get field goals, that's six points [and] that makes the difference, [but] we turn it over. To me, those were the drives offensively that were really important."
Indeed, the Buccaneers eventually ran up 417 yards of offense and had a slightly better per-play average (7.6 to 7.5) than the Chiefs' offense. By many measures, the Buccaneers' offense has been very productive in 2020. Tampa Bay ranks seventh in scoring with 28.7 points per game and has the ninth-ranked rushing attack. The Bucs have outscored their opponents by 64 points and rank seventh in the league in scoring differential. But they've also lost three of their four games that were decided by three points or less. Sometimes that feels like a failure at the end of the fourth quarter, but more production early in the game could make it so the Bucs don't need a heroic final drive or defensive stop.