The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a three-game winning streak into their Week Five Thursday night game in Chicago, and much of that was due to an offense that, while a work in progress, was showing improvement each week. Two days before that game, Head Coach Bruce Arians suggested that the most significant area of improvement was the play of the offensive line, which has quickly jelled into a cohesive unit in 2020.
"I think the most growth is on the offensive line," said Arians. "We're running the ball – I think – at a really good rate right now, which sets up a lot of the play-action passes. Their pass protection has been outstanding. Everybody knows about our receivers and the backs, but the offensive line is playing at a really high level right now."
The Bucs saw their winning streak snapped in Chicago by a one-point loss that saw five lead changes. Tampa Bay's offense sputtered somewhat after building a 13-0 lead but the rushing attack did crack 100 yards for the third time in the last four games. And while quarterback Tom Brady was sacked three times in 44 drop-backs, the Buccaneers still rank sixth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play.
In other words, Arians' opinion of the Bucs' offensive line play is backed up by the statistics. That said, NFL running backs still have to make their own yards on occasion, even when playing behind a good offensive line. And Ronald Jones did just that against the Bears.
Jones recorded his second straight 100-yard game in Chicago, rushing 17 times for 106 yards, with an average of 5.3 yards per carry. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats database, Jones probably shouldn't have gotten close to triple digits.
Because each player in the league is wearing a tracker during games that creates data about such things as his location on the field and the speed and direction of his movements at all times, Next Gen Stats can essentially evaluate every situation that a running back faces upon getting a handoff. Depending upon where his 10 offensive teammates and the 11 defenders are and how they are moving, Next Gen can calculate the "expected yards" on any carry by a running back.
Against the Bears, Jones gained 41 more yards than his Next Gen expected yards. That was 38.7% of his final total. Not only is that a very large number for a single game, but it increased Jones's differential between his actual yards and expected yards this season to +97. That is the third most by any running back in the NFL this year.
As good as Jones was at Soldier Field, he did face a lot of favorable situations. Despite the Buccaneers being without several of their top pass-catchers on Thursday night, the Chicago defense chose to focus more on Tampa Bay's passing attack, at least in terms of where their personnel was deployed. On 12 of Jones' 17 runs, he faced six or fewer defenders in the box. On those 12 carries, he gained 94 yards, averaging 7.8 per tote.
Here are some additional observations gleaned from the updated Next Gen stats database after Week Four:
Scotty Still on Top
The crown changed hands a couple times during weeks of the season but wide receiver Scotty Miller has held claim to the title of fastest Buccaneer for four weeks now. His top speed of 21.76 miles per hour reached on a route end to the end zone against Carolina remains the fastest time a Tampa Bay player has clocked in 2020.
Cornerback Jamel Dean has come very close to topping Miller's mark and he did it again in Chicago. After reaching a top speed of 21.72 miles per hour in punt coverage against the Panthers Week Two, Dean got up to 21.70 miles per hour again in Chicago, also while covering a punt. Dean has now topped 21 miles per hour three times this season, while Miller, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Justin Watson have all done it once.
The most consistent speedster on the roster, however, may be cornerback and special teams ace Ryan Smith. Smith has been clocked at a top speed in excess of 21 miles per hour six times this year, which equals the number of times all of his teammates have done it combined.
If it seemed like Bears quarterback Nick Foles was having his most success when he looked to his left, particularly on short passes, on Thursday night, it wasn't a mirage. Overall, Foles completed 30 of 42 passes for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Sixteen of those passes went to the left, and 14 were completed for 133 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Next Gen Stats splits the field into 12 quadrants for passers. Horizontally, it is divided into left, middle and right and then those columns are split four times into passes behind the line of scrimmage, passes thrown 1-10 yards past the line, passes thrown 11-20 yards past the line and passes thrown 21 or more yards past the line.
Foles was a perfect 14-14 in passes thrown to the left up to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. In contrast, he was 11 of 17 in the same range while throwing to the right, for only 56 yards and one interception.
Tampa Bay's pass-catchers did not get as much separation from defenders in Chicago as they generally have this season. The Bucs' leader in that category against the Bears was tight end Cameron Brate, who averaged 2.76 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the point of being targeted on a pass. The league average in this category is 2.84 yards of separation, so the Bucs didn't have a single player above the average in Thursday's game.
In contrast, Miller got 4.57 yards of average separation in the Bucs' Week Four win over the Chargers, and in Week Three the Bucs won in Denver with three pass-catchers who were well over the league average: Mike Evans (3.82), Rob Gronkowski (3.68) and Chris Godwin (3.62).