The Buccaneers have now taken sole possession of first place in the NFC South thanks to a very convincing inter-conference win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. It was perhaps the most complete game we've seen... ever?... from this team since quarterback Tom Brady arrived with everyone not only doing but excelling at their job across both sides of the ball.
The team's Week Four win over the Patriots was classified as a good 'team win' as well, but for entirely different reasons. Where the Bucs 'grinded it out' to emerge with a 19-17 victory over New England, Tampa Bay cruised against the Dolphins and Brady's former division rivals. The defense kept it close by allowing Miami limited opportunities to score and even gifting the Bucs' offense with bonus possessions as they seemed to score at will.
There were records set, expectations met and victory formations called. Here are a few of the highlights from Sunday's win that improved the Bucs to 4-1 on the 2021 season.
1. Offense firing on all cylinders… finally?
The Buccaneers are averaging 349.4 passing yards per game, which is the highest mark in the league through Week Five. That's translated into the most first downs in the league with 98 and a 33.4-point average per game, which is good for third-best in the NFL.
And though those are averages, somehow the win over the Dolphins seemed to be the first time we actually caught a glimpse of what this offense is fully capable of. Turns out, it's a lot. Tampa Bay messed around and tallied 558 yards of total offense on Sunday, with 437 coming through the air and 121 on the ground. The Bucs' 26 passing first downs against the Dolphins were the most in a single game in team history and they still managed another five rushing. It was the second week in a row the Buccaneers rushed for 120 yards or more, in fact. We found out on Monday that quarterback Tom Brady has been meeting with his offense on Fridays for the past couple weeks specifically to review their rushing attack. I'd say that extra time is paying off.
While he let his offensive line and running backs do most of the work on the ground, Brady completed 30 of his 41 pass attempts for 411 yards, five touchdowns (against zero interceptions), giving him a 144.4 passer rating on Sunday afternoon. He also set a new franchise record for most passes completed without being intercepted. That number now stands at 203. He's up for Offensive Player of the Week again, because of course he is. That was all before Brady was pulled with just over seven minutes to play in the game to give backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert some snaps with the Bucs holding a comfortable 45-17 lead. Tampa Bay had not one, but two receivers that eclipsed 100 receiving yards on the day and both Mike Evans and Antonio Brown had two touchdowns apiece. Brady also threw one to running back Giovani Bernard, for good measure. And yeah, in case you were wondering, the Bucs scored on all but two of their drives and only punted once. It's the second time this season the Bucs have scored 45 or more points and the fourth time they've scored over 30. They held the ball for the longest period of time all season too, edging out Miami 37:07 to 22:53 in time of possession.
Put simply, if your offense scores nearly every time they're on the field and they're on the field more than the other team, guess what? Your offense is hard to beat.
2. Improved red zone and third down.
The biggest area of improvement needed for the offense seemed to be in red zone situations and on third down. In New England, the Bucs only came away with point in one of four trips inside the 20-yard line and while their third-down conversion rate was still at over 47% that game, it was the sheer amount of third-down situations, more specifically third and long situations, that was the issue. They faced third down 19 times against the Patriots.
That changed against Miami.
They faced 11 third downs on Sunday, only three of which were third and long, all of which the Bucs converted. In fact, they converted eight of their 11 third-down attempts for a 72.7% success rate. That's tied for the second-best ever in franchise history.
The Bucs had a total of six trips inside the 20 against the Dolphins and turned four of them into touchdowns. Another trip early in the game, the Bucs converted a field goal attempt and the last time inside their opponent's 20-yard line was the last drive of the game with Gabbert electing to take a couple knees instead of run up the score. That means the improvement and productivity is actually better than it appears on the stat sheet and I'll take that any day.
3. Defense adjusting & coming in clutch when it counts.
Head Coach Bruce Arians said following the Bucs' Week Four win in New England after even more shuffling of the defensive backfield that the only thing he cares about on defense is how many points they allow. Their goal for the season is to give up 17 or less. Sunday marked the second consecutive week the Bucs accomplished that goal.
They did so behind an impressive performance by all three levels of the defense, starting up front with the pressure they put on Dolphins quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Tampa Bay accomplished its highest pressure rate when only rushing four this season, putting Brissett under duress on 30.8% of dropbacks. They tallied eight total pressures in those situations. When the Bucs brought five or more rushers, which ended up being on 38.1% of dropbacks, they tallied another eight pressures and a pressure rate of an even 50%. Two of their three sacks on the day came when blitzing.
Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett was responsible for 1.5 of those sacks, splitting his second with nose tackle Vita Vea as the big man finally gets some recognition on the stat sheet. Barrett had a strip sack of Brissett all on his own though that forced one of two turnovers on the day for the Bucs defense. It was Barrett's ninth strip sack since he arrived in Tampa, which ties him with Arizona's Chandler Jones for most in the NFL since 2019. The Bucs' defense as a whoke has 61 takeaways since Todd Bowles took over as defensive coordinator in 2019. That's the fourth-best mark in the league in that span.
On the back end, it was Jamel Dean that put together a productive performance despite coming into the game as questionable as he battles back from a knee injury. Dean ended the day with two passes defensed and an interception, making up for a dropped pick he had in Week Three, according to him. Brissett finished the day with just 275 yards passing and a sub 70% completion rate.
I would mention the run game too but, with only nine carries from Miami throughout the whole game, do I really need to? It seems opponents have all but abandoned the run when playing the Buccaneers and why wouldn't they? It was the 30th time in 37 games that Tampa Bay held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing, which is six more than any other NFL team in that time period.
They've managed to make teams one dimensional before they even step foot on the field, which might be an accomplishment all on its own. And now that they're figuring out how to be more effective in the passing game, they're more than holding up their end of the bargain on that side of the ball.