By now, you’ve definitely heard about the records the Bucs’ offense is shattering. The way they’re moving up and down the field and just how prolific their passing game is this season. Ok fine, here’s a little bit of a refresher in case you haven’t heard it all. The Buccaneers rank first in the league in total offense, averaging 467.6 yards of offense per game. They set a new franchise record against Cincinnati last week with 576 yards of total offense. Most of that yardage is coming through the air, with a matching top-ranked passing offense, averaging just shy of 400 yards per game at 390.1. With all those yards, the Bucs have the second-most passing yards through a team’s first seven games of the season in NFL history behind only the 2000 St. Louis Rams; the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ Rams, by three measly yards. That’s a little insane when you think about it.
What’s even crazier to think about is how the Bucs are putting up these passing numbers. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill West Coast Offense with its propensity for short, quick passes. It isn’t a Coryell offense with a designated route tree and sometimes complicated play calls. No, Head Coach Dirk Koetter’s offense is built on its explosiveness. It relies on explosiveness. And with an offensive arsenal of receivers, it gets explosiveness. For the Bucs’ purposes, Coach Koetter has qualified ‘explosive’ plays as runs of 12 or more yards and passing plays of 16 or more yards. Since he took over the offense in 2015 (then the coordinator under Lovie Smith before he assumed the role of head coach), the Bucs have had 341 explosive passing plays, in particular, good for second-most in that time span behind just the New Orleans Saints. Really, the passing game lends itself to passing plays in the 15-19-yard range. The Bucs have had 205 such plays since 2015, good for most in the league.
This season, the Bucs have continued that trend and maybe even magnified it. They currently have the second-most ‘explosive’ passing plays with 62, behind only the McVay-ian offense of the Los Angeles Rams, who have 64, and well ahead of Boy Wonder Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, who are pretty far behind with 53. If you want to differentiate SportsCenter-worthy highlight plays, say of 60 or more yards through the air, the Bucs have everyone beat in that category with four on the season. One of the latest such plays came on a touchdown pass to receiver DeSean Jackson in Cincinnati as he broke Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s record of most 60+ yard touchdowns in NFL history. The Bucs rank in the top ten in passing plays with 313, which includes all dropback plays. All these yards have also yielded tangible results. Even in the current NFL-era where offense is king and there seem to be more shootouts than not, the Bucs sit at eighth in points scored.
Another thing about Koetter’s offense, which stretches the field and focuses heavily on a vertical attack with longer passes, is that the routes themselves are longer. These aren’t designed routes that allow for a ton of yards-after-catch. They’re long, vertical routes (mostly in that aforementioned 15-19 yard range). This season, the Bucs rank first in air yards per target. That is, how far the ball actually travels through the air, versus a shorter pass where a receiver or running back may take it another 10 yards down the field after they make the catch. The Bucs are averaging 11.6 air yards per target, which is almost a full yard further than the next highest, which is Houston at 10.8. Ok, so what? You may ask. Well, ok, this theoretically means the routes receivers are running are longer routes, meaning the receivers need time to get to their designated positions, so the quarterback has to hold the ball in the pocket for longer.
And herein lies what I really want to talk about: the time this offense requires on the front end.
“We know [the quarterback is] going to hold the ball because obviously we have a bunch of deep threats and the way our pass offense is, it takes a little time to develop,” center Ryan Jensen explained. “We’re out there just grinding away. We know it’s going to take longer so we have to extend that clock in our head.”
And now we’ve uncovered the unsung heroes of what makes this offense tick. It’s the offensive line. Sure, the receivers are flashy. The quarterback throws are almost Madden-esque. But it’s the guys around the quarterback that are staving off predatory defensive lines to allow for all this to work in concert. The amount of pass protection needed to execute this offense is HARD on the guys up front, and they’re being asked to do more than you perhaps think they are.
Consider this: since 2015, the Buccaneers have had the third-most throws where it takes the quarterback 2.6 seconds or longer to release the ball. The only teams that have taken longer are the Indianapolis Colts with Andrew Luck and the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers. What’s more, is that of those three teams, the Bucs have allowed the lowest sack percentage on such plays, letting a defender penetrate the line just 11 percent of the time in comparison with the Colts at 13 percent and the Packers at 14 percent.
“I think we’re one of the best protecting teams in the league because we hold the ball longer than most teams,” Coach Koetter said of the offensive line this year. “We try to throw it down the field. We don’t make any bones about that. I think our guys are doing a great job in protection.”
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
It’s made even more impressive when you consider that the Bucs have also ‘made no bones’ about the fact that they are a pass-first team. Plus, there has been more than one occasion where Tampa Bay has found itself playing from behind. When you have multiple scores to make up, there’s a pretty good chance you’re throwing the ball. You know it. I know it. And that opposing defense knows it. It makes it that much harder on the offensive line to hold, but they do it and they’ve learned to adapt in how they do it.
“They’re always trying to get pressure on us,” Jensen said of opposing defenses. “We get blitzed a little bit more than average over some teams. I mean really when they can’t get to the quarterback on a straight rush, they start running gains and twists and stuff like that. Us passing off those twists and those gains and picking up those blitzes is huge for getting those long developing plays going.”
The cherry on top of all of this comes with who is starting this week under center. Left guard Ali Marpet chuckled when asked about what stands out to him about quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“He makes stuff up on the fly,” Marpet revealed. “He’ll make things happen, running the ball. He’s just a gamer. He sees what the defense gives him and he takes it.”
So not only does the line need to hold for passing plays, sometimes they have to hold on surprise plays that FitzMagic pulls out of a hat in real time. The amount of communication needed not only between the quarterback and his receivers, but all five of the guys up front, is pretty incredible. The entire offense needs to be operating on the same page. One way Fitzpatrick himself makes that happen is actually by getting with Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken prior to the game, essentially so that when Fitzpatrick conjures up a play in-game, it doesn’t deviate too much from Monken and Coach Koetter’s overall gameplan.
“Everytime I’m going in to the game as a starter, I’ll sit down with Coach Monk on Friday,” Fitzpatrick said. “I really enjoy that part of the game but I also need parameters. We’ll just sit and talk and I’ll tell him what’s on my mind and he’ll tell me what’s on his mind and things we like and don’t like. We’ll just have that open dialogue on Friday to make sure we’re on the same page and go from there. A lot of it is stuff we’ll work on during the week. I think as an offense we’ve done a good job of that with Coach Monken. I think he’s done a nice job with just the communication aspect of me and the rest of the guys.”
The rest of the guys, including the offensive line. And after all that, can we just get a little big man love?