The last play of practice on Tuesday evening in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp was snapped from the four-yard line, going in. It was the last of four such plays pitting the number-one offense against the number-one defense. Jameis Winston had thrown touchdown passes to tight end O.J. Howard on each of the first two plays, but the defense got a stop on third down.
Seeking a split, the defense blitzed on that final snap and the unblocked man proved to be outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who darted in from Winston's left, immediately blowing up the intended structure of the play. Winston reacted quickly, however, scrambling to his right and firing a dart into the hands of tight end Cam Brate, who was a few yards into the end zone.
Blitz pickups, quick decisions, check-downs and hot reads…Winston and the Buccaneers are going to need to excel at these things to get the most out of Bruce Arians' offense. In recent days, they have done noticeably well at those things.
Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has a creative blitz package and is excellent at disguising what his crew is about to do, so there are moments in every practice in which the defense successfully blows up a play before it can even get started. But, increasingly, Winston and company are reacting to the blitz in a way that's creating positive gains for the offense.
"They can always bring one more than you can block, so we're not going to block them all," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We've got to know who's hot. We've done a really good job of sight adjustments and hots, especially in that third-down period. So, yeah, that's a nice give-and-take."
Arians credits a play during a live-tackling period of practice last week in which Winston threw a short pass to running back Ronald Jones for further opening his quarterback's eyes to the value of the check-down. Jones broke several tackles on his way to a huge gain.
"I think that's one of his biggest areas of improvement. Instead of forcing it downfield he's seeing 11-yard gains on check-downs," said Arians of Winston. "Ten or 15 of those in a game, that's a lot of yards, and with the backs we have we're going to break some tackles. It really hit him the first time we were going live and he hit RoJo and RoJo went 60 yards on a check-down. It worked, and that's a great feeling for a quarterback."
Indeed, Winston is feeling it, and he's getting it.
"When learning, whether it's in calculus or it's in first grade, you are always trying to keep things simple," he said. "It sounds so cliché, like, 'Hey, I have to make the simple decision,' but sometimes checking that ball down is the simple decision. It's about moving the chains. It's about a completion here and a completion there. That's how you know the game really slows down, when you are just able to do that – when that is just second nature."
The "no risk-it, no biscuit" Arians has a well-earned reputation for taking deep shots, and Winston will get plenty of opportunities to throw it deep. But he also has to be able to make plays and decisions like the one above to truly thrive in the offense. Winston himself noted earlier on Tuesday that the increased number of times that running backs are going out on routes is putting extra pressure on him and the offensive line to get the protection right with just six blockers. Arians isn't going to spend the season turtling up into max protections.
"That's a huge part of what we do," said the coach. "Short throws, getting them out of the backfield. You can keep them in there and block; I used to call it buttoned-up – keep the tight end in, keep the back up, you're all blocked in with nowhere to go with the ball. Get it out and get it out fast."
Or, as was the case with the final play on Tuesday, recognize the free rusher and know where to go in order to keep the play alive and have a shot at making something happen. Winston actually had a lot of success in that category in 2018 and he was good again on Tuesday as he put together his third straight impressive practice.
"Three in a row, I thought he was fantastic," said Arians. "Especially down here – he saw the blitz, got out and threw a touchdown on the last play of the game. Yeah, he's progressing nicely."