The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense may not have too many days like the one they had on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. After all, the team's 544 net yards of offense is the third best in team history and it was the first time the Buccaneers had ever topped 300 net passing yards and 200 rushing yards in the same outing.
What the Buccaneers believe they can do is have plenty more offensive days that look like Sunday. That is: good run-pass balance and the ball getting spread around to all of the team's big-time playmakers.
Tampa Bay's individual output against the Panthers included four pass-catchers with more than 50 yards and a 200-yard rushing attack powered by Ronald Jones' career day. In his second game with the Buccaneers, Antonio Brown led the team with seven catches and was targeted eight times despite playing a little less than 50% of the snaps. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans caught six passes each for a total of 169 yards and a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski made one huge play downfield and then later found the end zone for the fourth time in the last five games. Cam Brate even saw his snap rate more than double from the previous three games and he scored the Bucs' first touchdown of the day.
Everyone was happy. It helped that the Bucs won going away, but Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks Sunday's game was an example of how the offense can find a way to get all of those playmakers involved.
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"There's no doubt," said Arians. "It's all about their egos. If you check your ego at the door and it's all about winning, it's not hard at all."
Godwin is still playing with a splint on his left hand due to the finger fracture and subsequent surgery from three weeks ago but doesn't appear limited by it. Evans is no longer showing up on the injury report and is clearly cutting more sharply on his once-sprained ankle. Gronkowski looks more like his old Patriots' self all the time. Nothing worked in the first game that Brown joined the offense, the 38-3 Sunday night loss to New Orleans, but the Bucs clearly have some specific plays drawn up for him.
It all works when Tom Brady has time to see the field and find which poison the opposing defense is picking. He had that in Carolina, taking just one sack, thanks in part to Jones' big day.
"I think a huge part of that is the running game," said Arians. "When we establish the run – and it doesn't have to be a 200-yard running game – the establishment of the run and the play-action keeps him clean in the pocket. Any defensive lineman when he has two things to think about is not going to tee off like he does when it's just putting your ears back on third down or pass rush the entire time. When his uniform is clean we have a great shot."
The Buccaneers ran 40 of their 46 plays with three or four receivers on the field in the loss to New Orleans, and they had experimented with more four-wide sets in the two weeks prior to that. In Charlotte, however, the Bucs mixed it up more with eight different personnel groupings and went back to more two and three-tight end formations.
The three-wide grouping will likely always be the one the Bucs use most often, as is true of a lot of teams in today's NFL. But it was closer to an even split on Sunday. The Bucs ran 37 of their 77 offensive plays in three-wide and 34 with two or three tight ends on the field. There was some overlap on a few other plays, two of which featured three wideouts and two tight ends and one that included three tight ends and two wideouts. There were only three plays with four wideouts on the field together.
This was planned. After the Buccaneers set an unwanted NFL record for fewest running plays against the Saints they were determined to get the ground game going in Charlotte.
"Kind of the way the game went on Sunday night against the Saints, we weren't able to run the ball and that puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line," said Brate. The negative game script definitely hurt, so it was definitely our priority coming into the week to be able to run the football. We thought that was going to be able to open things up in the passing game. Definitely was our game plan to be a little bit more smash-mouth with heavier personnel in the game, so that was exciting to play more. [I] always enjoy that."
Notably, Brady threw in Evans' direction 11 times on Sunday, the most times Evans has been targeted in a game this season. This came after a couple of weeks of the Buccaneers' coaches noting that they wanted to find ways to get the ball to their Pro Bowl receiver more often. In some games this season that hasn't been easy to do because opponents were rolling extra coverage in his direction. But that didn't happen on Sunday and that is probably because the Bucs' whole pass-catching crew is healthier and that makes it harder to single out one player for extra attention.
A few of the targets in Evans' direction definitely could have been executed better, but he made several huge plays – including a fantastic back-of-the-end-zone touchdown catch and a tough grab of a fourth-down pass on a crossing route – and he could be primed for a big stretch run.
"When he was out wide there was a lot of single coverage and we were able to get him one-on-one," Arians explained. "[I] would have liked to see him catch a couple more balls, actually. He was not double-covered the whole time. Then, when he was inside, he got open [and] we got him the ball a few times. Tom just spread it around beautifully in this ballgame. Again, you're going to have more targets when you have 80 snaps on offense. When you get 80 snaps, everybody should have a shot at getting the ball in their hands."
That's the key, of course. The Buccaneers got into a lot of manageable third downs, and then they converted 10 out of 16 of them, plus one fourth down. Another set of downs, and another, and six drives of 69 or more yards and there are going to be more opportunities for everyone. And Sunday's game showed how well the Buccaneers can take advantage of them with their deep offensive personnel.