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Key Play: Why the Buccaneers lost to the Cowboys

With their Week 16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now stand at 5-10 with one game remaining.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s going to come in the form of a high draft pick in April of 2019. Tampa Bay currently sits in the sixth slot heading into Week 17.

How did we get here? Let’s break it down.

This play became a point of debate in the twittersphere Sunday afternoon after Jameis Winston fell victim to a Randy Gregory strip-sack and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped and scored from 69-yards out.

Who was to blame? Well, there were two schools of thought.

First, here’s the play.

There are those who put the majority of the blame on Jameis Winston. The quarterback receives the snap with 1:57 on the game clock, and is hit by Gregory at 1:53. That’s four seconds. Traditional thought is the quarterback needs to have made a decision on what to do with the ball at or around the three second mark.

Here, at three seconds, not only has Winston not made a decision with the ball, he’s trying to direct traffic while holding the ball exposed in one hand. This approach is neither smart or successful as any number of hits would have likely knocked the ball free, just as it did here.

Then, there are those who blame Donovan Smith, whose job it was to block Gregory in the first place.

At the snap, Gregory takes an outside bend against Smith relying on speed to get around the large and lumbering offensive tackle.

Smith extends trying to push the Cowboys pass rusher off his arc and out of the play, but Gregory dips below his outstretched hands to continue his pursuit of Winston.

As Winston steps up and out of the pocket, Gregory’s continuous effort pays off as he gets a clear and unencumbered shot at Winston, which leads to the fumble. Meanwhile, Smith is not only ‘jogging’ behind the play, but at one point completely comes to a stand-still while watching his assignment barrel down on his quarterback.

There was a minority third school of thought too. The play-call was a bad one. At the time of this writing, all-22 film is not currently available. But here’s what we know from the Fox broadcast tape.

On 3rd-and-5, Tampa Bay came out with a shotgun spread formation using five receivers split-out to try and thin out the Cowboys defense.

Dallas came out in their nickel package with a four-man defensive front, four corner backs, two linebackers and single-high safety coverage.

Pretty standard arrangement for the situation. Something of interest however, is the Cowboys defenders – except for the high safety – played within six-yards of the line of scrimmage. This shows the Cowboys are fully expecting the Buccaneers to target the sticks.

DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries are split widest on the right and left sides respectively. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin lineup in the slot with Godwin lined up closest to the offensive line as Cameron Brate lines up between him and Jackson in a three receiver set on the left.

Before the snap, Winston motions Humphries in and he takes up tight alignment on the offensive line leaving Evans as the further most right side receiver.

When Humphries motions, corner back Jourdan Lewis moves, but only so slightly and he maintains his depth.

Quarterbacks are taught commonly to read this defender as the outside corner while assuming the defender closer to the line will likely take the inside release.

Cornerback Byron Jones maintains his position on Evans despite Humphries’ motion, and jams his man at the line.

Meanwhile, Humphries’ own release is hindered by the jam causing his five-yard out-break to come late. Evans’ deeper break is only two-yards deeper, likely another effect of the early jam by Jones as the receiver looks to get into his break on time rather than focusing on depth.

By the time this happens, Winston is already under pressure from the four-man rush and his ability to do anything on his left side is wiped out.

On the right side, Brate and Jackson run a crossing patter with a built-in pick coming from Brate to try and free-up Jackson.

Like the right side, by the time these route combinations take shape, Winston is already under pressure and moving up in the pocket. There is a moment when he clears the pocket when Brate has solid position against his defender, but Winston is looking deep, not short.

Godwin breaks out of the slot with an inside release and breaks over the middle on a slant.

Again, by the time he’s getting into his break, the pocket is collapsing and Winston’s field has essentially been cut in half with Godwin moving in the wrong direction to be of any immediate assistance to his quarterback.

While we can’t see it for certain, it’s a safe assumption Winston is trying to direct Jackson to an open spot on the right quarter of the field as he’s approaching the line of scrimmage.

This ‘touchdown to check down’ passing game theology calls on the quarterback to start on deep reads and check down after examining those deeper routes.

With a pass-rush barreling down on him, Winston continues to try and execute this mindset to the detriment of himself and ultimately, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There were no quick releases on this play, and every route took approximately two or three seconds to develop with one deep route, two in-breaking routes on the right and two out-breaking routes on the left.

Essentially, the play design requires the quarterback to have at least three seconds of clean time in the pocket and negates the right side outside quarter of the field and the inner quarter of the left side.

It’s just not a good play design. But was it solely to blame?

If you ask me, all of these played equal factors to the outcome.

The early pressure given up by Demar Dotson and Caleb Benenoch negated any use Winston could have gotten out of the initial breaks by his receivers.

Bad route combinations gave Winston few options once he came clear of the initial rush.

Tampa Bay’s ‘touchdown or check-down’ mantra ensured Winston’s eyes were deep on Jackson instead of short on Brate who had a clean second to make a short catch if given the opportunity.

Winston’s usual determination to make a big play over the safe play – Winston has the opportunity to throw the ball away – causes him to hold the ball into the four to five second range trying to direct Jackson into open space.

Gregory’s continuous effort paired with Donovan Smith’s lack of continuous effort gives him a clean shot from behind on Winston.

Jaylon Smith’s freedom to move with no threat to his zone places him in perfect position for the scoop-and-score.

As you can see in the clip, this play happened early in the first quarter and came with the Buccaneers down just four with the ball at the Cowboys’ 34-yard line.

It’s not the only reason they lost, but this play alone was a big-time ‘here we go’ moment in the game, and became a point of conversation through the final gun.

For that reason, this is the only play in this week’s key plays column. And I’ll leave it to you fine readers to assign final blame.


Who is to blame for the fumble?

  • 16%

    Jameis Winston

    (5 votes)

  • 36%

    Donovan Smith

    (11 votes)

  • 16%

    Dirk Koetter

    (5 votes)

  • 20%

    Randy Gregory

    (6 votes)

  • 10%


    (3 votes)

30 votes total

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