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Bucs Don't Make It Easy on First-Time Starter | A Next Gen Look at Bucs-Cardinals

Trace McSorley, making his NFL starting debut, had the Cardinals up by 10 in the fourth quarter on Christmas, but the Bucs' defense kept the game close enough for a comeback win mostly by limiting the young QB's throws down the field


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers banked a critical victory on Christmas night in Arizona, defeating the Cardinals, 19-16, in overtime. They had to rally from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to send the game to an extra period, as their offense struggled to find a rhythm all evening, but a strong performance by the defense kept it close enough for such a comeback.

One of the main reasons the game remained close throughout was the Bucs' defense not letting quarterback Trace McSorley have a particularly strong outing in his NFL starting debut. By the basic box score numbers it was a performance that resulted in a 57.4 passer rating, the sixth lowest by any quarterback who threw at least 20 passes in Week 16. McSorley completed 53.3% of his passes (24 of 45) for 217 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. A good runner, McSorley was also held to 14 yards on seven carries.

McSorley's one big play of the game was a 47-yard flag route to speedy wideout Marquise Brown late in the third quarter, setting up the Cardinals' go-ahead field goal. Otherwise, as is well demonstrated by NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS), McSorley had little success throwing downfield, and didn't even try to do so very often.

According to NGS, McSorley's expected completion rate was 61.8%, giving him a Completion Rate Over Expected (CPOE) of -8.5. This is despite the fact that the fourth-year passer threw 12 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, completing all 12 of them. He was 12 of 33 on all other attempts and the Buccaneers' defense was particularly stingy on relatively short throws. On passes thrown from one to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the Bucs allowed only seven completions on 17 attempts for 57 yards.

Either by design or by the Bucs' defensive efforts – or perhaps a combination of both – McSorley's throws were mostly short, mostly quick and mostly effective when the pass-catcher did a lot of work after he got the ball in his hands. His yards per attempt figure of 4.8 was the third lowest in the NFL in Week 15, and his average time to throw (TTT) of 2.61 seconds was well below the league average of 2.84. (As an aside, Tom Brady's TTT of 2.16 against Arizona was the quickest of any quarterback in Week 16 and the quickest in any game for him since NGS began tracking it in 2016.) Of McSorley's 217 passing yards, 135 were picked up after the catch, or 62.2% of the total. That was the eighth highest YAC percentage in the league in Week 16.

The Buccaneers' pass rush, which included an extra blitzer on 28.3% of McSorley's dropbacks, did not actually put much pressure on the young quarterback. He was pressured on 17.4% of his dropbacks, in part because of that aforementioned quick release. However, the coverage did force McSorley to throw into tight windows on 17.8% of his passes, which was the ninth highest TW% any QB faced in Week 16. McSorley had an open target (defined by NGS as having three-plus yards of separation at the moment the pass arrives) on just 46.7% of his passes a wide-open target (five-plus yards of separation) only 22.2% of the time.

All of this resulted in a total Expected Points Added (EPA) of -16.2 in McSorley's first start and an EPA/dropback of -0.35. Those two figures were fifth worst and 10th-worst in the league in Week 16.

McSorley, who was in the lineup due to Kyler Murray's ACL tear in Week 14 and Colt McCoy's concussion in Week 15, was far from a disaster in his first NFL start. He mostly avoided bad plays – his one interception was on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of regulation – and his team up by 10 points with 11 minutes to play. But Tampa Bay's defense mostly kept him from making big plays and, in the end, did enough to win the game.

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