The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers by two points on Sunday, and they spent the entire game within one score of the lead. That obviously suggests that the outcome could have been different if the team had just one or two things better during the course of the game. Heck, in some cases, one more yard could have made a big difference.
The Buccaneers are scoring 10 fewer points per game in 2022 than they did last season and currently rank 20th in scoring and 22nd in yards per game. The rushing attack ranks last in the league in both yards per game and yards per carry. A dip in production of that size can't be explained by just one or two factors, but if there is anything emblematic about the team's offensive struggles it is the all too frequent failures on third-and-one and similar short-yardage situations.
"Short yardage is another topic we've got to get better at, offensively especially," said Head Coach Todd Bowles on Monday. "We've got to find a way to get one yard. We've got to understand what we're doing to get one yard; then it becomes a toughness thing down there to get the yard."
This issue first reared its head on Sunday early in the second quarter, when the Buccaneers had a second-and-goal at the one but then lost three yards on an attempted power run with Leonard Fournette over left guard. Tom Brady was sacked on the next play and a drive that had needed just three feet to finish with seven points had to settle for three. The Bucs also stalled on third-and-two on their next drive and on third-and-one early in the fourth period. On their long touchdown drive that came up a failed two-point conversion shy of tying the game, the Bucs had to go for it twice on fourth down, once after Rachaad White's run on second-and-one was stopped short and Brady's sneak on third-and-one was denied.
There were a couple successful third-and-shorts in the game, and it's worth noting that the Buccaneers are actually better than league average this year overall in third-and-one tries (66.7%) and third downs needing one to three yards (64.5%). But the failures often seem to come at inopportune times and in bunches on certain Sundays. And that draws attention to an offensive line that came into the season needing to prove itself after getting new starters at all three interior line positions.
Given the anemic rushing numbers, it's fair to suggest that group hasn't reached its potential yet. The Buccaneers do rank second in sacks per pass play so far this season, but Brady is getting rid of the ball at an average of 2.42 seconds after the snap, the fastest of any starting quarterback in the league. Brady absolutely thrived with that sort of attack last season, leading the league in yards and touchdowns, but it's obviously not as effective so far this year. The Bucs have one of the best wide receiver duos in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and Bowles said on Monday that the Buccaneers need to get the ball to Evans more often, in particular.
And thus the team is looking for answers up front, whether that be scheme or personnel.
"Well, we've got the guys we've got and we're happy with them," said Bowles. "We just have to be better play-wise. We've got to execute better. It's always a guy here and a guy there, whether it's Luke [Goedeke] or somebody else on the offensive line, or a ball outside and we miss a block here and there, or somebody swims us and gets by and makes it look worse than it is. It's a different guy every play.
"We've got to be more detailed as coaches. We've got to be better execution-wise as players. It's a group effort. If we've got to change some things from an offensive scheme standpoint, we'll do that. If we have to do something from a player standpoint, we'll take a look at that, as well. We're trying to find the best solution, how we can get better in those areas."
The Buccaneers found an experienced replacement for the departed Alex Cappa at right guard when they traded with the Patriots for Shaq Mason. Center Robert Hainsey, a 2021 third-round pick, and left guard Luke Goedeke, a 2022 second-round pick, are first-time starters and both are replacing 2021 Pro Bowlers. Goedeke is trying to fill the big shoes of Ali Marpet, who elected to retire after eight seasons. Those two obviously face the biggest learning curves, but Bowles doesn't think the blame for any offensive struggles should be placed on any one player, including Goedeke.
"The things he's getting better at, we see the improvement," said Bowles. "Can he get a lot better? Yes, he can get a lot better. But we're happy with the things that he's doing. He's given up a few plays here and there but I wouldn't single him out to be replaced, so to speak. There are other guys that we know can play and do certain things, and we look at that every week, where we find people to put in the game plan on all sides of the ball. We'll try to keep looking at that and we'll try to monitor that and plug in where needed, but we've got to help him a little bit."
Short yardage was just one area of 'situational football' in which the Bucs came up short in Pittsburgh. They scored only one touchdown in four trips into the red zone, and the defense gave up seven third down conversions in 15 tries, including four in the second that needed 11 or more yards. In a game with such a tight finish, it's these key situational moments that stand out afterwards. Bowles called it the "freakiest thing" that the Bucs struggled in those areas because they always emphasize them heavily in their preparations and generally feel good about how things go on the practice field.
"These are things we practice every day," he said. "We'll continue to practice, we harp on them, we stress them. We actually did well during the week. We did not do well during the game. It's got to transfer over. Things we need to change as coaches we need to change and not be big-headed enough to change, defensively, offensively or special teams. And player-wise, they have to understand that and they have to get better at executing."