WR Keyshawn Johnson, who has been a bigger factor in the Bucs' offense this season as planned, was the intended target for a first-play deep ball against the Packers
Against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first play of the game was an incomplete pass thrown in the direction of running back Mike Alstott, who had released from the backfield. On the chalkboard earlier that week, it was a post pattern to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson for a big gain.
The Bucs got nothing out of that play, but did move the chains with consecutive completions to Alstott and Johnson on the next two downs. The opening drive in fact, moved into Packers territory before ending on a missed field goal.
That first snap was one of eight or nine plays during the game, according to Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen, on which the Bucs' primary goal was to throw the ball well downfield. However, the opportunities never materialized and Tampa Bay's longest completion of the first half was 15 yards. The team later completed a 22-yarder in the fourth quarter on a short out that Johnson turned into a bigger gain.
"We were trying to open the game with a deep ball, but it got taken away," said Christensen. "The corner bailed out on it. There are very few passes you call that don't have a deep component, an intermediate component and a check down. That would be league-wide, I think."
Of course, Johnson's 22-yard gain kicked off a 95-yard drive that eventually won the game for Tampa Bay, 14-10. That brought a packed-house crowd of over 65,000 at Raymond James Stadium to its feet, but that same group had earlier voiced its displeasure at the apparently conservative play-calling.
To Christensen and the Buccaneers, it's a matter of capitalizing on big play opportunities, not calling them. Tampa Bay actually had four completions between 22 and 35 yards against the Vikings on September 30 and had hoped to bump that up a notch a week later.
"I do think you have to take your shots," said Christensen. "There are some shots you have to take. In Minnesota, we took a bunch of shots, a bunch of shots down the middle. We probably had more shots called last week than we had all season, but they just didn't happen."
At least on some snaps against the Packers, it appeared that they didn't happen because quarterback Brad Johnson didn't have sufficient time to make the throws. The team's protection appeared to be better in the first two games, however, and Christensen doesn't see that issue as the main reason for the lack of big plays so far.
"No more than any other factor," he said. "I really haven't felt like anything was a bigger factor than any other, whether it's the play-calling or the receivers or the protection or the quarterbacks or whatever. I don't know that it's any one thing. If it was one thing, I'd have a cleaner answer for you – 'We'll fix this one thing and then the floodgates are going to open and there are going to be big plays everywhere and 30 points on the board every week.'
"I could take each play and break it down and say, 'Here's what happened.' The first play of the game, the corner bailed and we didn't have a shot at the post. The next play, it may be something else."
What does have Christensen encouraged, and sure that the Bucs will become more successful on plays of all varieties, is the team's improved efficiency in the passing game. Tampa Bay is clearly more willing to throw on first and second down this year than in the past, and that has resulted in fewer and more manageable third downs so far.
"That is one of the components of a good offense, that you don't have as many third downs," said Christensen. "My gut feeling is that we've had less third downs this year than we've had in the past."
Research provides some backing for Christensen's hunch, even though you might think comparing the first three games of 2001 to the first three of 2000 might be unfair. After all, the Bucs scored 93 points through the first three weeks last season and were ranked 13th overall in offense after that span.
However, the Bucs have still had slightly fewer third downs this year than last (37 to 40) and have a clear edge in producing more manageable third downs. Of the Bucs' first 37 third downs this year, 25 have been from six yards or less. Last year, only 17 of the first 40 were that short. Even more striking, Tampa Bay was 2-10 in third down tries of three or fewer yards at this point last season; now, they're 5-7.
The following chart gives a clearer view of those numbers.
|Overall Third Downs||7 of 40||15 of 37|
|Third Downs, 1-3 Yards||2 of 10||5 of 7|
|Third Downs, 4-6 Yards||3 of 7||8 of 18|
|Third Downs, 7-10 Yards||2 of 16||1 of 8|
|Third Downs, 11+ Yards||0 of 7||1 of 8|
"The things that we've said we'd do, we've tried to do," said Christensen, noting that the Bucs have utilized former Pro Bowl WR Keyshawn Johnson more successfully and thrown with greater accuracy overall. "That's where I think we stay the course. Again, we're in the third week of the season. You lay out the plan and now you go with the plan. Let's keep going. We're going to get better and better and better doing it. We'll do the same things over and over again and get better at them. Brad's going to get more and more comfortable with these guys. If we get this win, no matter what the score, you come out of this quarter (of the season) 3-1. It's still about winning football games."
To do that, the Bucs will need to beat a Tennessee team that ranks 28th in defense but was first in that category a year ago. The team has lost cornerback Dainon Sidney for the season and will now be without cornerback Samari Rolle for several weeks, but that may actually make them less susceptible to the big play, since they will probably do a little less to force the action at the line of scrimmage.
"They've lost those corners and they've gotten less aggressive than they've ever been," said Christensen. "There much less aggressive this year than they have been. But, again, they'll be a tough defense and it will be one where you grind for everything."
It would be nice, of course, to come out of the grind every now and then and bite off a big chunk of yardage. Christensen agrees, though it isn't likely the Bucs will play a gambling style to the extent of, say, Green Bay, which responded to Tampa Bay's temporary loss of Pro Bowl safety John Lynch by going deep right into his zone on Sunday, earning a 67-yard TD pass.
"Right after the touchdown, though, they take another shot and it gets picked," said Christensen. "(Deep balls) are two-edged swords. Favre takes that shot, it gets picked off and almost puts the game on ice. It takes away one of their last drives.
"They're going to go for it. That's their deal. They took a bunch of shots and scored 10 points this week and threw three interceptions. Next week, they may take a bunch of shots and score 40 points.
"You guys would like, I would like, fans would like a simple formula. I don't know that there is one."