It’s hard to think that a defending Super Bowl championship squad like the Bucs need to improve much in 2021. Especially when you consider the circumstances that have surrounded their offseason.
Nevertheless, this is the NFL. Things are only going to get tougher for the Bucs. The bullseye is bigger than ever as they head toward the regular season. Therefore, it’s vital the team improves upon its deficiencies from 2020. A slow start or early-season inefficiency isn’t an option.
This article contains raw stats, analytics, and some film to help provide context throughout each category. Please keep in mind that all stats are pulled from the regular season unless otherwise noted.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the four areas the Bucs need to improve the most in 2021.
4. Pass defense against tight ends
The Bucs struggled when defending the tight end position in 2020.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Todd Bowles’ defense allowed the seventh-highest completion percentage (72.3%), the seventh-most touchdowns (9), and the ninth-best quarterback rating (113.3) when opponents targeted tight ends.
The Bucs defense amassed the 11th-worst EPA/tgt when defending the position and the unit was well below average, coming in at No. 30 when it comes to points above replacement-level, which is a metric used to define whether or not a player/unit is playing at better than replacement-level, at replacement-level, or worse.
These numbers are somewhat-similar to what we saw from Todd Bowles’ defense in 2019. The Bucs allowed the fifth-most yards and eighth-most touchdowns to tight ends, but the completion percentage dropped to sixth-best (64.8%) and the opposing quarterback rating was mid-pack at 102.1. Tampa Bay’s EPA/tgt was right around the same, as well. The Bucs tied for the 12th-worst EPA/tgt in 2019.
Devin White‘s development is the key to solving this riddle. Sure, the Bucs can mix up coverage assignments from time-to-time, but White has to take the next step in his development when it comes to pass coverage. He’s been a very solid player for the Bucs during his first two years, but there needs to be major improvement in his pass coverage in 2021.
3. Throwing the ball deep down the middle of the field
Believe it or not, Tom Brady is in fact human. He can’t do everything in perfect fashion.
Throwing the ball 20+ air yards between the hashes was something he did not do well in 2020. Brady’s play has always been considered superior to that of his competition, but he was merely average-below average when attempting these throws.
And he attempted a lot of these throws. Brady’s 30 attempts led the league. Per Pro Football Focus, his 42.9% adjusted completion percentage is only good for 20th among quarterbacks with at least 26 attempts in 2020. Per SIS, just 60.7% of his passes were considered catchable, which was the ninth-lowest percentage among quarterbacks with at least six attempts and his 57.1% on-target rate was good for 18th.
Brady’s 57.8 quarterback rating when targeting the middle of the field is also well below Next Gen Stats’ league average of 86.1. And last but not least: Brady’s 0.36 EPA/att was good for just 17th among quarterbacks in 2020.
This isn’t just a stat that was crammed in-between Weeks 1-13 before the Bucs revamped their offense, either. Brady attempted seven of these passes from Weeks 14-17 (which tied for the fourth-most attempts in the league) and his EPA/att checked in at 19th-best in the NFL.
Overall, Brady’s deep ball was very good in 2020. But it was rather lackluster when targeting this area of the field. And trust me, I get it: The Bucs offense isn’t always about throwing deep down the middle. But you need to make sure you’re consistent and effective if you’re going to be one the league-leaders in a certain category.
Something to consider is the lack of an offseason. Deep balls are more about playcalling, timing, and the rapport between the quarterback and receiver. Another offseason -and an actual offseason- should help the Brady improve in this area.
His recently-repaired knee could’ve been an issue, as well.
“I don’t think he was 100 percent last year,” quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen told reporters. “His quote, or close to a quote was, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get my knee fixed up and I’m gonna be better next year and you’re gonna be excited about that.'”
2. Improve the pass defense on 3rd & 7+
The Bucs defense was very good at forcing opponents into 3rd and 7+ situations during the regular season. The downside is the pass defense was subpar in these situations.
Per SIS, opponents threw the ball 78 times on 3rd and 7+ against the Bucs, good for seventh-most in 2020. Tampa Bay tied the Chargers for the most passing touchdowns allowed (5), the seventh-highest completion percentage (64.1%), the fifth-highest quarterback rating (102.0), and the 13th-highest EPA/att.
The Bucs pass defense was especially bad when in man coverage. Per SIS, quarterbacks averaged a league-best 139.2 quarterback rating when the Bucs were running either Cover 0, Cover 1, or Cover 2 Man. They also allowed the second-highest completion percentage (66.7%) and teams averaged the fourth-highest EPA/att against the Bucs when they ran man coverage.
It was a different story when Bowles ran zone. The Bucs held opponents to the eighth-lowest EPA/att and their average quarterback rating dropped to 78.6. Bowles’ pass defense also held opponents to the fifth-worst positive play percentage.
Bowles likes to get after opponents on first and down in order to set up 3rd & long, that way he can more-or-less play with your head in terms of the defensive look, play design, etc.. It’s a sound strategy, but teams can get the best of the defense, per the following play.
The Bucs come out with six guys on the line of scrimmage, but only two have their hands in the dirt. Those two guys are Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, but they’re not in their usual positions. They are both lined up as 7-techs on this 3rd and 11.
Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett drop back in coverage while Lavonte David and White rush the A- and B-gap on their respective side. Barrett is supposed to relate to the running back and take him in this play, but the play design prevents him from doing so. It’s a well-designed concept that allows Hunter Henry to essentially block Barrett out of the play. The Bucs are in quarters so Jamel Dean bails with his assignment, which leaves the flat wide-open for the easy pass and first down. Joshua Kelly ends up gaining 17 yards and gets the first down.
Things were pretty bad by the time the bye week rolled around. The Bucs pass defense averaged the fifth-worst EPA/att through the first 13 weeks of the season. And it wasn’t because of a non-existent pass rush. The Bucs pass rush registered the fifth-highest pressure percentage and the second-most hurries and quarterback hits on 3rd and 7+ over this span.
But there is good news: The pass defense turned itself around after the bye week. From Weeks 14-21, the Bucs pass defense faced the most pass attempts (40) in the NFL, but averaged the ninth-best EPA/att on 3rd and 7+.
The Bucs have to continue to show this improvement in 2021. The defense should be one of the better units in the league and there’s no excuse (outside of injury, of course) for any kind of drop-off. Especially when you consider the fact that 10 of the 11 starters are entering their third year in Bowles’ defense.
1. Running back usage in the screen game
The Bucs and Brady love them some screens. Per Football Focus, Jameis Winston had the eighth-most dropbacks in 2019 and Brady was right behind him with the ninth-most. Brady finished 2020 with the third-most dropbacks when attempting a screen pass. It’s pretty obvious that the screen game is an integral part of the Bucs’ game plan.
But it’s not a very effective part of the game plan, unfortunately.
Per SIS, their mark of -0.02 EPA/att tied the Las Vegas Raiders for 20th in the NFL. That’s not an encouraging stat for one of the more screen-happy teams in the league. But if you parse the numbers, you can easily find the weakness.
The Bucs were specifically bad when targeting running backs in the screen game. Per SIS, Tampa Bay’s mark of -0.58 EPA/att was second-to-last in the NFL. Only the Broncos were worse.
A lot of that stems from the inconsistency that Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II displayed when catching the ball out of the backfield – or in general. Per Pro Football Reference, Fournette’s 76.6% catch rate ranked 39th and Jones’ 66.7% catch rate ranked 60th out of 69 running backs with at least 18 targets in 2020. Per PFF, Bucs running backs also led the NFL with 15 drops last season.
Things changed when the Bucs targeted wide receivers in the screen game, however. Per SIS, the Bucs fielded the third-highest EPA/att and the third-highest positive play percentage when targeting receivers.
The inconsistency at running back is what prompted Bruce Arians and the Bucs to jump at the chance to sign Giovani Bernard, who had the 10th-highest EPA/tgt among running backs with at least nine targets in 2020.
“He obviously has run a bunch of them, and he knows how to get there,” said Arians as he described Bernard’s role in the Bucs’ screen game. “We’re trying to teach him some of our tricks also. He is a weapon, a really, really hard cover for linebackers and safeties on option routes and everything that he does on third down.”
Will Bernard be enough to fix the Bucs’ woes in the screen game? There’s still a long way to go, but either way, the Bucs need to find a way to improve in this area in 2021.
Where do you think the Bucs need to improve the most in 2021? Let us know in the comment section below!