The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are off to an 0-7 start. People are starting to ask why. It's not as if the team is bereft of talent like, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars. In fact, the Buccaneers have been spending money like Richard Pryor in Brewster's Millions the last couple of years. So what gives?
Having played six seasons for the Bucs, I have been watching this team closely for years, and without a doubt, I would say the problems stem mostly from coaching. Yes, some players need to play better and more consistently, but even if they did, most of the time they aren't being put in favorable positions to win.
The ass-kicking they received at the hands of the Carolina Panthers last week was a perfect example and a microcosm of what has been happening all year. The only reason the score was uglier than previous weeks is because they finally played a team that came into the game healthy and playing well.
Running the ball
Defense is my specialty, but I will save the best for last and start with the problems on offense against the Panthers.
The Tampa Bay offense was built to run the ball physically and down hill, then take shots down the field off play-action passes. For this to work, you have to run the ball effectively, especially early on in the game. Aside from the Saints game, this hasn't happened, and it didn't happen again on Thursday night.
That is not to say the Bucs couldn't run the ball. When you don't have a base running play that you feel comfortable calling over and over in a game, it is hard to have sustained success running the ball. The base running play, in my opinion, was supposed to be power-o, with a guard pulling and a fullback kicking the force player (end defensive player on the line of scrimmage) out to the same side, and the tackle and the guard to the opposite side double-teaming a defensive tackle up to the middle linebacker. This usually creates a seam between that tackle and the pulling guard where a running back can run down hill, but the Bucs haven't had much success running this play this year.
Injuries have definitely played a role in this frustration. The Bucs paid big money last year to Carl Nicks, adding one of the best blocking guards in the NFL. Unfortunately, he had turf toe, which caused him to miss most of last season. This year he has been dealing with MRSA in his foot and toe area. The other guard, right guard Davin Joseph, missed all of last year with a knee injury, and he now looks like a shell of himself. He can't reach block (get outside leverage on a defensive tackle lined up outside of him) to the front side of the play, nor can he cut off block (gain inside leverage on a defensive tackle lined up inside of him between himself and the center) on running plays away. Don't even get me started on how bad he has looked in pass protection when he doesn't get help from the center.
Now, Nicks is out indefinitely and Joseph isn't effective anymore at pulling on those power-o plays. It also doesn't help when Doug Martin, the second-year running back who made the Pro Bowl last year as a rookie, is also out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
It sounds like I'm saying it's the players' fault, right?
Those injured players are part of the problem, but a good offensive coordinator schemes around the loss of good players because injuries are a part of football. The Bucs are quite good at running isolation (ISO) plays to the weak side now. That's where the center and a guard double-team the nose tackle up to the middle linebacker and the other guard and both tackles base block (aim at their inside shoulder and turn them out) their defensive lineman, leaving the fullback to lead up through the weakside B gap between the guard and tackle and take on an outside linebacker. The running back follows him to daylight. This play consistently gets good yardage for the Bucs. There's really only one problem.
Their offensive coordinator, MIke Sullivan, doesn't like to call it a lot.
Thursday night he called it twice in the first half when it was still a game. Twice. Bucs rookie running back Mike James gained four yards on the first weak ISO and 15 yards on the second weak ISO. And that was it.
The passing game
As for the passing game, several writers out there looked at the Bucs' scheme during the Josh Freeman drama and drew the same conclusion I had since last season.
It is an antiquated scheme with few short to intermediate routes to help the quarterback out when his big play wide receivers, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, are covered outside. To be sure, since the Bucs made the switch to Mike Glennon, there has been a concerted effort to get some of those short and intermediate routes integrated into the system. More crossing routes, more swing routes from the backs and the emergence of rookie tight end Tim Wright have all helped give Glennon some security blankets.
However, as the game goes on each week you will see a stretch where Sullivan reverts back to those antiquated plays. When he does, it usually turns out bad. Take for instance the Bucs' decision to go for it on fourth-and-10 from their own 16-yard line in the fourth quarter, down 28-6 with a little over eight minutes left in the game.
Instead of trying to give Glennon a play where he can move the sticks with an intermediate route or two, Sullivan called the equivalent of four vertical routes. This, with the game on the line and the Panthers playing in a deep version of Tampa 2. Glennon ends up throwing into triple coverage to Wright, and the pass is, of course, broken up.
Do you blame Glennon for that play, or do you blame the guy who called it with little to no chance of success?
Again, this is not to absolve the players. There have been a lot of dropped passes. Vincent Jackson — at the beginning of the season — and Doug Martin have dropped 11 passes, according to Pro Football Focus. This isn't a recent situation; the drops have been there all season. If the same issue keeps coming up over and over, game after game, at some point, you have to blame the guy responsible for getting those players ready.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Glennon is also regressing. People may say he's playing well. They're wrong. And I don't want to hear from the "hey, he's just a rookie" chorus, either. Blame Greg Schiano because he told me, all the fans, and everybody who would listen, that they benched Freeman and went to Glennon because he gave Tampa Bay "the best chance to win." So far, it doesn't seem like much of a chance.
One of the reasons I figured the Bucs would get exposed last Thursday is because they were finally playing a good defense that was healthy. The last four weeks they faced, in order: a Cardinals defense at home, the Eagles' 31st-ranked defense at home, the 23rd-ranked Falcons defense on the road and the third-ranked defense in the NFL.
Glennon had second-half swoons in each of those games, including throwing the game away with two late interceptions against the Cardinals. I would argue the coaching staff put him at fault having him throw backed up with the lead in that game. Still, the facts are what they are, and last Thursday was no different.
I counted eight bad passes Glennon threw before the last Panthers field goal; six of them came after halftime. He also took a sack where he had safety valves available and instead patted the ball too long. If the Carolina Panthers' secondary didn't have hands like feet he probably would have thrown three interceptions, too.
The Bucs can claim all they want that Glennon hasn't started locking in on his primary receiver, but that is a lie. In the second halves of the last two games, that is exactly what he has done and it has cost the Bucs big time. On the Bucs' first drive after halftime, with the game still within reach at 14-6, facing and third-and-nine, Glennon locked in on Mike Williams on some version of a slow hook route or a slow bang eight. He somehow totally misses Jackson running wide open on a crossing route right in front of him (yellow circle first picture). The pass to Williams falls incomplete because Glennon throws it high and behind him (second picture) and ... well, you know the rest.
Again, I'm sure you think I am making a case against the players. Nope.
Remember all the complaints that folks had about Freeman ? Locking in on the primary receiver, holding the ball too long, not seeing the whole field?
Back to right guard Davin Joseph. He has been killing the Bucs with how awful he is playing. It's not just that he is no longer playing at a Pro Bowl level, its that he is not even playing most games to the level of an average player. Put it this way: if he didn't have his history and wasn't making the money he is, Joseph probably would have been cut by now.
To illustrate this point further, Thursday night at the end of the game after that last Panthers' field goal, I took a peek just to see how he did. During that stretch he had to block someone one-on-one with no center help 13 times. He lost six times, including a holding penalty and a sack. On another play, when he did have center help, he got beat so bad the center had to help to his outside.
Hard to win that way. Harder still when your coaches don't notice it after six games and refuse to send the center or a back to help Joseph more than they did Thursday night.
And now we get to my favorite subject, Bill Sheridan and this Buccaneers defense.
You see, some folks were fooled by the performance of this defense in the first few weeks of the season. I tried to tell them the Bucs were still playing some pretty unsound football, but they wouldn't listen. I pointed out the fact that the Saints, who the Bucs "held" to 16 points, had either scored or crossed over the Bucs' 35-yard line eight times in that game. I also pointed out that Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Tom Brady hadn't played all that well against Tampa Bay, and that the Patriots still easily could have scored 30 points had they not had been having so much fun running the ball down the Bucs' throats in the fourth quarter. I predicted that Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles would pick this Bucs defense apart because of all of the coverage busts they have every single week.
Well, are you listening now?
Here is the Bucs' problem on defense in a nutshell: Bill Sheridan is an idiot.
I mean football-wise. The man might be a genius when it comes to astrophysics or some such.
But as a defensive coordinator, he is an idiot. I don't know any other way to put it.
Sheridan doesn't believe in having a base defense it seems. By base defense I'm not talking about personnel, but rather a defense, much like the running play I talked about earlier, that you feel comfortable calling at any time during the game because your team has practiced and played it a ton and can do at least alright with that scheme against anything an offense might throw at them.
When you think about it, the Buccaneers' defense should be a lot like the Panthers' defense. Wihout top-notch players up front, the defense has to play a lot of over defense with the strong side defensive end head-up on the tight end and the pass-rushing defensive tackle at the three technique between the offensive tackle and guard to the strong side. One must keep the nose tackle in the A gap between the guard and center to the weak side and another defensive end on the outside shoulder of the tackle to the weakside. You can sprinkle some "Under" defense, which is basically everything I just explained mirrored on the opposite side, but "Over" defense is where it's at.
Lock your $16 million corner Darrelle Revis, who you traded a first and a midround pick to the New York Jets for, on the other team's wide receiver and play zone or man with the other guys and let's go.
Nope, not Sheridan. You see, he thinks he is playing Madden or something and just wants to blitz. And blitz. And blitz some more.
The problem is when you need to make a play, especially at the end of the game when a team is trying to run the clock out, blitzing is a hit-or-miss proposition. But because the Bucs blitz so much, you can tell the guys don't know what to do now when a straight defense with no blitz is called in those situations. The worst crime of all in this, in my opinion, is Sheridan isn't teaching his players good football. He is teaching them how to win on an Xbox.
The thing about blitzing so much is you have to be right on your coverage, and oftentimes this season the Bucs are not. These are features, not bugs, of Sheridan's defense, as it happens every week. The very first play of the game against the Panthers, the Bucs blitz and nobody covers the fullback to the flat.
THE VERY FIRST PLAY OF THE GAME ON DEFENSE!
That catch went for six yards, but the fullback, Mike Tolbert, was called for a facemask on the play so, no harm no foul, right? Surely it was just a glitch and they fixed it right after. Right?
Two plays later, the Bucs blitzed again and again nobody picked up Tolbert. This time the catch went for 10 yards and a first down, and it stood. Everything pretty much went downhill from there.
All told I counted 33 times the Bucs blitzed last Thursday night. THIRTY-THREE TIMES.
For comparison's sake, I also counted how many times the Panthers' blitzed before their last field goal.
Yeah, blitzing a lot will get you some sacks and some tackles for a loss, but it is unsound football when it becomes the base of your defense like it has under Sheridan.
When he wasn't calling blitzes, Sheridan was having fun calling my (un)favorite defensive line stunt of his, the Quick Tex.
Here's the deal: I actually like smart line stunts, and there is definitely a place for them in your playbook. They are especially useful when a team wants to spread a defense out and make the linebacker cover down on the slot wide receiver then run the ball in the gap the linebacker left from. But just calling them just to call them is stupid. That's probably why Sheridan does it.
A Quick Tex or QT is where the three technique shoots hard through his B gap (between the tackle and guard) while the defensive end to his side takes one step up the field and then loops inside to the A gap (between the guard and center) to his side.
The Bucs' version of a QT is particularly appalling because their best player on the defensive line happens to be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. This stunt all but assures that on any passing play McCoy will be double-teamed while defensive end Adrian Clayborn runs around looking for a free gap to run through. How it plays out is over time Clayborn has decided it's just too cluttered in that A gap to his side, so although running through it would probably free up McCoy a little, he would rather run all the way around to the B gap on the other side of the center because there is generally nobody over there to block him.
Does it work out well at times? Sure.
Does it usually end up with McCoy double-teamed and nobody else getting pressure on the quarterback? Absolutely.
As we saw last Thursday night, it also gives up the edge of the defense to a running quarterback, which probably isn't a good idea when you're facing all 6'5, 250 pounds of Cam Newton.
"Hogwash!" Sheridan says. That's why he called it 13 times in that game.
Thirteen times ...
So between blitzing and calling QT there were at least 46 plays last Thursday where the defensive line was going sideways rather than straight ahead. That is simply unacceptable and foolish, especially against an offense like the Panthers.
Are there some players not holding up their end on defense? Of course there are.
Second-year nickelback Leonard Johnson should rub butter all over himself in pregame because as soon as the whistle blows he is gonna be toast. The Bucs have no choice but to play him after injuries to other would-be nickelbacks earlier in the season. Third-year former second-round pick defensive end Da'Quan Bowers still can only get reps on definite passing downs for the most part, and the Bucs allowed Michael Bennett to walk after making nine sacks last year in part because they were counting on Bowers to blossom. Big free agent pick up safety Dashon Goldson was also out with injury last Thursday Night.
Yet at the same time, there is still a ton of talent on this defense.
With McCoy, Revis, second-year linebacker Lavonte David (who is playing out of his mind right now), safety Mark Barron (who also is playing at a high level), rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence, middle linebacker Mason Foster and the dynamic duo of Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas at Sam linebacker, the Bucs have enough talent to win, and without a doubt, enough talent to dominate when healthy. Their defensive coordinator is simply holding them back.
I'm going to give you two great examples from the Panthers game that show you why Sheridan has to go.
First play of the second half, the Panthers have two tight ends in the game and one running back: DeAngelo Williams. The personnel tells the Bucs to keep all of their linebackers in the game. The formation of tight end trips (tight end and two other wide receivers to that side of the center) forces the Bucs to walk their linebackers away from the box (inside the offensive tackles) leaving their run gap responsibilities open. This is the perfect time to check to one of those line stunts Sheridan loves so much so that the defensive line exchanges those gap responsibilities and makes the ball bounce somewhere that the linebackers can be a factor if the Panthers decide to run the ball. Hell, the Bucs used to do it all the time back when I played.
However, the Bucs do not check to a line stunt and thus when Williams runs a draw and cuts back to the A gap inside Gerald McCoy, who is doing his job well in the B gap, there is nobody there to tackle him because the linebacker who should be there is still out covering the tight end.
This is football 101 folks, and Sheridan has made the defense remedial.
The second play I'm going to point out speaks to players finally getting fed up with the BS.
The very next drive the Panthers have on offense, they work the ball down the field from their own 47-yard line all the way to the Bucs' six-yard line. I have a feeling McCoy had had enough of going sideways and being Clayborn's crash test dummy on all of the Quick Tex-es. So although Quick Tex is what appears to have been called, instead of running through his B gap then working outside of the left tackle for contain, McCoy shows what he could do if his defensive coordinator just let him rush and beats the guard inside with a rip move (yellow circle). Unfortunately, because Clayborn is at that same point all the way in the B gap (red circle) on the other side of the center, there is nobody to keep Newton in the pocket so McCoy can sack him.
Newton calmly escapes to his left (red arrow) and then easily runs in from six yards out, untouched, for the touchdown. If I were his coach I would grade McCoy down for that play, but then again if I was his coach I would probably also either be a dumbass or a hostage being held against my will.
All I'm saying is Bill Sheridan is, you know, an idiot.
I also have a feeling they are ruining Clayborn because he used to be a guy who could beat offensive tackles one-on-one with good pass rushes, but now he just looks to go somewhere where nobody is blocking rather than beat a guy to get pressure. Over the rest of the season that isn't going to work out well either.
It is for this reason and many others I believe the Glazers, who own the Buccaneers, should have fired Schiano immediately after the loss and instructed the interim coaches to make changes. I understand why they want to show "stability" and not appear to be making knee-jerk reactions, but this coaching staff may well ruin some of the team's young players if they are allowed to coach the next nine games. I say that without a hint of hyperbole. The film doesn't lie.
P.S. Plenty of people have tried to come up with reasons other than, you know, the guy is an idiot for why the Buccaneers haven't put Darrelle Revis on the opposing team's best wide receiver and go man-to-man with him. Well, Revis lined up opposite Steve Smith 39 times last Thursday. It wasn't always man and Smitty missed a little time with an in-game injury, but you can't tell me Revis suddenly got healthy enough to do this after not doing it the previous Sunday against Atlanta.
Smith only had four catches for 42 yards and no touchdowns in the game, by the way.