In his fourth NFL start, Jameis Winston threw four interceptions in a loss to the Carolina Panthers. After tossing seven picks in his first four games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie quarterback chose to work doubly hard on improving his decision-making in order to cut down on turnovers.
Winston hasn't thrown an interception since. Over four games, he has tossed 113 passes, completing 61.1% of them for 930 yards (232.5 per game), four touchdowns and, again, no interceptions, leading to a passer rating in that span of 99.1.
If there has been one significant deficiency in Winston's efforts in that span – or perhaps it's more accurate to say in the efforts of the Buccaneers' offense as a whole – it has been an inability to turn red zone drives into touchdowns. Tampa Bay's offense is tied for 27th in the league red zone touchdown percentage, and over the last four weeks they have taken 15 drives inside the opposing 20 but only extended six of them, or 40%, all the way to the end zone.
On Wednesday, Winston pinpointed his red zone efficiency as the top thing he's currently targeting in his never-ending quest to improve. The Buccaneers can only hope that focus produces the same result as his emphasis on ball security did a quarter-season ago.
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"That's something I have to get better at, to help us out," said Winston. "I believe I've been getting better every week, but definitely my eye progression and the things that I see in the red zone and how quick I have to get the receivers is different. That's another aspect of my game you have to get better at."
Winston pointed out that, in addition to the turnover issue, he and the offense made a concerted effort to get better on third downs, and that too has come to fruition. The Buccaneers have converted at least 45% of their third downs for five straight weeks, the longest streak the team has enjoyed since at least 1991.
"Earlier in the season we wanted to work on third downs," said Winston. "Four straight weeks in a row we've met our goal for third downs. Red zone, we only did that twice this year, so I definitely want to start working on that, focusing on that a lot."
It is definitely more difficult to operate in the red zone, because the shrinking of the available field packs more defenders into a tight space. NFL teams as a whole are averaging 5.56 yards per play but that number drops to 3.00 inside the 20. Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter pointed to a number of potential culprits for his team's struggles around the goal line in recent weeks, from mental mistakes by blockers to unexpected shifts by defenders to certain play calls that just didn't work out. However, he also noted that Winston can improve both his decision-making and accuracy in the red zone.
While conceding that Winston has made several big plays with his feet – and a decision to abort a pitch play and run the ball in himself in Atlanta proved critical to the Bucs' win in Week Eight – Koetter thinks the rookie passer needs to be quicker to trust his first read.
"Make a decision and stick with," said Koetter. "It's like the golfer…all those pro golfers, they visualize that shot and you've got to commit to it. You can't change your mind midstream because that just never works out."
Winston cut down on his turnovers in part because he understood that the first option isn't always going to work as well in a game as it does on the practice field. Conversely, the sped-up nature of play in the red zone tends to reward decisiveness, and Winston is growing to understand that.
Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 9 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Yeah definitely, that's what I have to learn so we can score down there, just sticking with my read and standing by that, not having my eyes everywhere so we can convert down there," he said.
Of course, Koetter hasn't lost sight of the fact that his quarterback has a total of eight games under his belt. The Bucs weren't necessarily surprised that their rookie passer threw a few interceptions in his first NFL month, but they were certainly pleased when he addressed the situation so successfully. That same dynamic is now in play as Winston tries to improve his red zone output.
"On the ones that fall on Jameis, I would say that's characteristic of inexperience," said Koetter. "He started on one side one time, tried to switch over to the other side, which makes him look a little bit late. As I say every week when [I] get up here, Jameis is doing a great job, but everybody, me included, we're expecting him to play like a five-year vet, and he's an eight-game vet. He's doing some fantastic stuff, competes his tail off every week, he studies, makes some beautiful throws, but everything happens just a little bit faster in the red zone and we have to make decisions and stick with them."