After Tampa Bay's 45-20 win in Las Vegas in Week Seven, a game in which the Buccaneers used four-wide receiver personnel groupings on twice as many plays as they had in their first seven contests combined, we openly wondered if that was going to be the start of a trend. That conjecture was fueled by the impending addition of Antonio Brown to a receiver room that already featured Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and Justin Watson.
Well, it may not be a trend quite yet, but the Buccaneers' Week Eight win over the New York Giants didn't walk it back either. After using a four-wide grouping on 15 plays against the Raiders, the Buccaneers ran that personnel out for 14 more snaps against the Giants, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and that was without Chris Godwin in the lineup. Jaydon Mickens essentially took Godwin's place in the game plan against New York and had a career high eight targets and five catches.
Overall, the Buccaneers put at least three receivers on the field for 44 plays, or exactly two-thirds of their 66 offensive snaps. Even with blocking tight end Antony Auclair back in action after six weeks on injured reserve, only had two tight ends on the field together on 11 snaps, though another 11 featured an extra offensive lineman in Joe Haeg.
The Buccaneers' four-wide approach actually worked better on a per-play basis than almost everything the offense did on Monday night. Those 14 snaps produced an average of 6.07 yards per play, better than any grouping except one that featured three tight ends and one receiver for just two plays, including Cam Brate's 25-yard reception.
One of the purposes of the four-wide alignment is to get Mike Evans into the slot, where the team believes it will be harder for opposing teams to double-cover him, as they have chosen to do frequently this season. On Monday night, Evans ran 28 of his 60 plays out of the slot and he caught two passes for 13 yards out of the four-wide alignment. That means he was in the slot for 46.7% of his action against the Giants. Through the Buccaneers' first seven games, Evans had only operated out of the slot on 28.5% of his snaps.
While the strategy will likely work in the long run, particularly when Brown is involved and drawing attention on the outside, it didn't create a lot of room for Evans against the Giants. While he did catch five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown, he had to do it without a lot of space in which to operate. His average yards of separation at the time of his seven targets, according to Next Gen Stats, was just 2.60 yards from the nearest defender. That was the lowest of all the Bucs' pass-catchers, including Mickens (3.11) and Brate (2.96). Rob Gronkowski had the highest average separation, at 4.12 yards. The league average was 2.85 yards.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 8 matchup against New York.
Here are some additional observations gleaned from the updated Next Gen stats database after Week Nine:
Bringing the Heat
Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles continues to send extra pass-rushers more frequently than most defensive play-callers, though he wasn't quite as aggressive against Daniel Jones and the Giants as he was the previous week in Las Vegas.
In this case, the Buccaneers sent five or more defenders into the backfield on 42.2% of Jones's dropbacks, compared to 51.3% the previous week. That was the Bucs' fourth-highest "blitz" rate of the season, after games against Denver (60.0%), Las Vegas (51.3%) and New Orleans (44.7%).
Sending extra pass-rushers did mostly work for the Buccaneers. They did so on 19 dropbacks in total and got two of their three sacks on those snaps, plus eight QB pressures, for a pressure rate of 42.1%. Jones had a passer rating of 62.4 against the blitz, compared to 86.8 against four or fewer pass-rushers.
When it Turned
The most important sequence of plays for the Buccaneers, in terms of increasing their chances of winning, occurred around the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter.
With 10:04 to play, the Buccaneers had a first down near midfield and tried to run Leonard Fournette over left guard but tackle Joe Haeg was flagged for holding. After that 10-yard penalty made it first-and-20 at the Bucs' 38, the Next Gen Stats win probability chart considered the Giants 56% favorites to get the victory.
Things got better for the Buccaneers in a hurry after that. First, rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson got open down the middle of the field for a 20-yard gain that immediately erased that penalty yardage and produced a first down in Giants territory. The Bucs' win probability took a sudden leap from 44% to 53%. On the next play, tight end Cam Brate got 25 yard on a crossing route and had nine more tacked on the end for a helmet-to-helmet hit by cornerback Isaac Yiadom. Instantly, Tampa Bay's win probability took another big jump after that play, up to 64%. Finally, Tom Brady's touchdown pass to Evans on the next snap pumped that win probability up to 73%, and it never dipped below that level again.
Working the Middle
While Brady was particularly effect on short and intermediate throws out to the sides in Las Vegas, against the Giants he did his best work down the middle of the field.
On the Next Gen Stats chart that splits the field up into 12 passing quadrants (right middle and left horizontally; four different yardage zones vertically), Brady's best numbers were in the three middle zones from behind the line of scrimmage to 10-19 yards downfield. Brady threw a total of 13 passes over the middle of the field and completed all of them for a total of 128 yards and one touchdown.
On this particular evening, the deep ball wasn't quite working. Brady threw five passes that traveled 20 or more yards downfield in the air and all of them were incomplete.