The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have dropped three of their last four games, perhaps most painfully their Week Six loss in Pittsburgh to a 1-4 team that had lost four straight. That has prevented them from opening up a lead in the NFC South and staying near the top of the conference standings, though they do remain tied for first in the division.
Despite all their success over the past two seasons, the Buccaneers have had some occasional struggles since the arrival of Tom Brady, such as a 1-3 run in the month of November in the 2020 Super Bowl campaign. As Brady noted on Thursday, the team is familiar with this sort of frustration – most teams are at some point or another – and knows how to pull out of a minor tailspin.
"We've been frustrated [before]," he said. "We've definitely been frustrated, for sure. We have a lot of great competitors. Again, I don't think anyone in your job is going to feel great if you're doing your job and it's not going well. It's the same for football players, too. For us, when you're at 3-3, yeah we wish were better but we haven't earned it. So we need to do a good job of earning it. That means going out and emphasizing the right things, working on the right things, practicing, gaining confidence and ultimately going out in the game and executing. That's the reality of what we have to do. Our whole job is to try to go accomplish that. We're putting a lot of focus on that."
The Bucs only lost by two points in Pittsburgh and never trailed by more than one score, but they simply couldn't come up with the timely plays they needed to turn the game around. Much of that were in moments of situational football, such as third downs, short yardage and red zone incursions. Both Brady and Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich fielded multiple questions Thursday regarding the team's offensive play-calling but both insisted the struggles were a matter of execution not strategy.
"I think our problem is an execution problem," Brady stated. "I think every team has different things they like to do and do differently, and there's scouting reports and so forth. In my opinion – we watch the film – we need to do a better job of executing. There's plenty of plays out there for us to make that we haven't made.
"I know it sounds [repetitive], but that's the reality. Whatever play's called, whether it's a goal-line run or whether it's a pass or whether it's third-and-long, our ability to execute, whether we throw it 50 times or run it 50 times it's the same thing. Whatever is called we have to do a good job in our job to execute it in the best possible way."
For everything that is plaguing the Buccaneers' offense at the moment, there are examples in this very season that suggest the team is capable of doing much better. Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on all five of its red zone trips in Weeks Three and Four before going just three of eight (not counting one kneel-down at the end of the win over Atlanta) in the last two games. The Buccaneers were stopped on some critical short-yardage runs in the Pittsburgh game but are actually above league average in converting third-and-ones, at 66.7%. And the notion that the Bucs' play-calling on first downs is predictable and too run heavy belies the fact that Tampa Bay ranks 29th in run rate on first-and-10, at 43.9%.
"Again, I think it's not as much play selection as, when you run it you want to be efficient when you run it," said Brady. "When you throw it, you want to be efficient when you throw it. I think about it more, not necessarily what plays are called but are we executing the plays that are called in order to [succeed]. If you want a positive run, did we gain five yards? And if we didn't, why did we not? Was it the wrong look, was it a bad look, was it a difficult alignment by the defense that didn't allow us to do that? And then when we throw it, same thing. Are we throwing into a good look or a bad look. Every defense has strengths and weaknesses and we just have to do a better job executing."
And even though Brady only targeted Mike Evans four times in Week Six, he had thrown to his top receiver 18 times over the previous two games combined, resulting in 184 yards and two touchdowns. Sometimes the opposing defensive game plan makes it particularly hard to get the ball to Evans, but that kind of emphasis on one player should result in good opportunities for some other pass-catchers, and the Buccaneers have plenty of talent at that position.
"They've just done a good job of kind of making sure he's covered," said Brady. "Any time Mike's open, I'm going to try to get him the ball. But the guys have been doing a good job defending it, and we've just got to make other plays. Until they allocate help elsewhere we have to make the plays elsewhere. It's just a matter of keep finding the open guy. My job is to drop back and find the open guy. Mike's usually open when he's got the right matchup, but when they really try to take him away I've got to find other guys. That's my job."
Brady's Thursday meeting with the press ended with a joking exchange about the possibility of him retiring in the middle of this season. Amid the laughs he made it clear he wasn't going away anytime soon. What he is going to do is help the team figure out how their new-look offense operates best so that the Bucs can get back to scoring closer to 30 points a game than 20.
"We're just going to keep working at it," said Brady. "Again, it's more about action than saying a bunch of words. We've got to go do it. You know, no one's making it easy on us, no one's going to make it [easy on them]. No one's going to feel sorry for us. That's sports. It's Week Six, we're going into Week Seven, there's a lot of football [left]. Our whole season's ahead of us. We've got a long way to go."