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Buccaneers-Falcons All-22: Quarterbacks are faking out Tampa Bay’s defense

Thank goodness for the Buffalo Bills.

Their offense might be the only thing in the NFL right now more unsightly than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. Yes, the Bucs are allowing more points per game than any other team. It might seem as if it couldn’t get any worse.

Oh, but it can.

As long as pick-six machine Nathan Peterman is throwing passes for the Bills, they will have not only an offense that struggles to score points but also an offense that struggles to not score points for the other team.

So that’s the good news. We still can laugh at the Bills.

The bad news is that the Bucs defense has more cracks than the walls at a Citrus County nuclear power plant. Imagine paying tens of millions of dollars for something that doesn’t function as promised.

Most of us will agree that the issues start up front. The defense is generating pressure on just 22.9 percent of pass plays, the fourth-lowest rate. Quarterbacks, like most of us, do their jobs better without someone in their face and have been taking full advantage of the clean pockets, but of late they’ve exploited another weakness:

A lack of discipline.

How? Via the play-action pass, a play that Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh described as the “single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense.”

“By using the play-pass as an integral part of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious, very intense and very fired up to play football,” Walsh once wrote for American Football Monthly, an instructional journal for coaches. “The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.”

Note that Walsh described the play-action pass as the best tool to take advantage of a disciplined defense. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen what happens when an offense uses it against a defense that’s distracted and disoriented from the opening whistle.

In Week 3, the Steelers barely used the play-action pass, but in Week 4, the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky used it to great effect, completing 6 of 8 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown.

On Sunday, though, Matt Ryan and the Falcons absolutely torched the Bucs with it. Almost a third of Ryan’s passes came after fake handoffs. He wasn’t as efficient in terms of yardage but was more so in terms of points, completing 9 of 13 passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns.

If you were wondering how Mohamed Sanu got so wide open on his 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter, that, in concert with the lack of pressure, is how. The fake handoff sucked Bucs linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander toward the line of scrimmage, leaving Sanu one-on-one with rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart as he crossed over the middle of the field.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Looking ahead to this Sunday, the Browns aren’t a heavy play-action team, but I’m expecting them to call such plays until the Bucs either contain them or force the offense into situations where running the ball isn’t an option. Baker Mayfield has been slightly more effective when passing after fake handoffs. He’s averaging 2 more yards per attempt and his quarterback rating is about 30 percent higher.

• • •

In his first start of the season, Jameis Winston completed 30 of 41 passes for 395 yards and four touchdowns to two interceptions. By quarterback rating, it was the eighth-best performance of his career. (Oddly enough, the Bucs won only four of the seven games in which he posted a higher rating.)

Yet I was critical of his performance, mainly because of the two interceptions. As Winston himself said, “If you eliminate those two plays, I had a great day. You have those two plays, it’s a bad day.” That’s life in the NFL. If five of your passes are bad, they might cancel out the 35 great ones.

A few readers have reached out to defend Winston, arguing that we can’t expect him to be perfect.

And they have a point.

Here’s what we should expect: He is scheduled to make $21 million next season. That will be, conservatively, $15 million more than his backup. He needs to be $15 million better than that guy.

He has proven himself to be at least a league-average quarterback, but for him to take his game to the next level, he’ll need to take what defenses give him. This offense is talented enough — playoff-caliber even — that he doesn’t need to carry it. He doesn’t need to go for the 12-point touchdown.

Take, for instance, a sequence halfway through the first quarter Sunday. The Falcons had just taken a 7-6 lead, and it was clear we were headed for a shootout. The Bucs were on the move, having crossed midfield after Winston completed a 19-yard pass to Mike Evans.

On first down, left tackle Donovan Smith missed a block of defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who proceeded to wrap up running back Peyton Barber for a 2-yard loss. A setback for sure, but not a drive killer.

The drive killer came on second and 12 when Winston targeted Chris Godwin deep along the right sideline. It looked as if Godwin was expecting a deeper pass, but instead it traveled toward the sideline, forcing him to adjust his route. Regardless, DeSean Jackson was open on a shallow crossing route.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Considering Jackson’s speed and the Falcons’ tackling issues, that’s where the ball should have gone. Explosive plays are great, but the ball doesn’t have to travel very far for an offense to execute them.

In other words, no, Winston doesn’t need to be perfect. He needs to be patient.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.

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