On Monday, we began counting down the workdays leading up to the Fourth of July holiday on the weekend by sharing some Next Gen insights on each of the teams on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 schedule. That included some information as to how the New Orleans Saints deployed sneakily-productive tight end Jared Cook and who might be the biggest threat in the Carolina Panthers' great pass rush.
You can review those insights and get more information on this week's Next Gen Nuggets series here. For now, let's move right on to Weeks 4-6 on that highly-anticipated 2020 Bucs schedule.
View photos of wide receiver Mike Evans in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Week Four: vs. L.A. Chargers
What You Need to Know: Opposing defenses need to pay attention when Austin Ekeler goes into wide receiver mode
Former Chargers Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon is now a Bronco, as Los Angeles discovered in 2019 that it could operate just as well, if not better, with Austin Ekeler in the backfield. Gordon's holdout to start the '19 campaign gave Ekeler the chance he needed to move to the front of the line, and after the season the Chargers let Gordon walk while re-signing their former undrafted free agent to a new four-year deal.
Obviously, it is Ekeler's outsized production in the passing game that helped him produce elite numbers in 2019, including 1,550 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns. Ekeler's 993 receiving yards were second among all NFL running backs to Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, and he finished at the top of that RB list with a 10.8-yard average per catch and eight touchdown receptions.
The Chargers didn't just throw screen passes to Ekeler. He had 11 receptions while lined up as a receiver in the slot, the third-most among all running backs, according to Next Gen Stats. Moreover, he was highly efficient when running routes rather than staying in the backfield or taking handoffs. According to Next Gen, Ekeler averaged 3.1 receiving yards per route run in 2019, which was the second-most among all players, not just backs, in the NFL (minimum 300 routes run).
Here's the top five: San Francisco TE George Kittle (3.3), Ekeler (3.1), New Orleans WR Michael Thomas (3.0), Tennessee WR A.J. Brown (2.9), Minnesota WR Stefon Diggs (2.7). That is elite company.
View photos of tight end Rob Gronkowski in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Week Five: at Chicago
What You Need to Know: If Todd Bowles wants to blitz at his usual rate in Week Five, the Bucs would be better off with Mitch Trubisky under center for the Bears
The Buccaneers have had one encounter with Chicago quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and it was not much fun. In Week Four of the 2018 campaign, Trubisky's second after being drafted second overall in 2017, the Bucs visited Soldier Field and absorbed a 48-10 beating, with the Bears' young passer throwing for 354 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. That is unquestionably the best game so far in Trubisky's brief career.
Many other Sunday's have not gone as well, though Trubisky's 48-29 TD-INT ratio and his 85.8 passer rating aren't exactly disastrous. Still, the Bears made a point to give Trubisky competition and themselves another option if they don't like how his fourth season is going, trading for Jacksonville's Nick Foles and Foles's rather large contract.
The Buccaneers head back to Soldier Field in 2020 and obviously will be hoping for better results. They will likely have a better defensive showing, particularly if the gains of the second half of 2019 under Todd Bowles are a harbinger of things to come this fall. One thing is for certain, the Buccaneers' defense is far more aggressive under Bowles than it was under Mike Smith in the first half of 2018. In Bowles' first season at the helm, the Buccaneers brought five or more defenders at the quarterback on 42.9% of their defensive snaps, the second-highest average in the NFL.
So would the Bucs want another crack at Trubisky after he scorched them in 2018, or would they like to take on Foles, who they most recently defeated when he was starting for the Eagles in Week Two of that same season? Next Gen Stats suggest the Buccaneers would be better off facing Trubisky if they plan to be aggressive with the blitz.
According to Next Gen, Nick Foles has been very good against the blitz over the last three years. Including playoff games, he has thrown 11 touchdown passes and just one interception versus the blitz since 2017, resulting in a passer rating of 113.0.
In that same span, and with some playoff games also included, Trubisky has fared much worse against the blitz. He does have 13 touchdown passes in that situation, but he also has been picked off six times and has an overall passer rating of 76.2.
View pictures of QB Tom Brady in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Week Six: vs. Green Bay
What You Need to Know: Thanks to their own free agency addition of an emerging edge rusher, the Packers might have the most fearsome pass rush the Bucs will face in 2020
The Buccaneers hit the jackpot when they signed former Bronco Shaq Barrett, a rotational edge rusher in Denver for four years, to a one-year prove-it deal and gave him a chance to start. All Barrett did was lead the NFL and shatter the franchise single-season record with 19.5 sacks. The addition of Barrett was undoubtedly one of the best value moves – and one of the best moves overall – in NFL free agency in 2019.
The Packers could argue that last point, however. They added not one but two edge rushers in free agency – both named Smith, which is an outstanding surname – and also hit the jackpot. Former Raven Za'Darius Smith ended up with 13.5 sacks while former Redskin Preston Smith added 12.5. Holdover Kenny Clark added six sacks of his own to help the Packers get to 41 as a team.
Those 41 sacks were actually six fewer than the Buccaneers posted and only tied for 15th in the NFL overall. However, that probably undersells how good the Smith duo and the Packers were at disrupting the efforts of opposing quarterbacks.
On a per-snap basis, Green Bay's pass rush might have been the best in the NFL. The Packers generated quarterback pressure on 33% of opposing dropbacks, which was the highest rate in the NFL. Za'Darius Smith led the way. His rate of generating QB pressure on 14.8% of his pass rushes was the best mark in the league on an individual basis, among players with at least 300 pass-rush opportunities. In addition to tying Barrett for the NFL lead with 37 QB hits, Smith also finished with 71 QB pressures, according to Next Gen Stats, which also was the highest total in the league.