Just a month ago, in late October, The Sporting News broke down the six key problems plaguing Tom Brady and the Buccaneers’ disappointing offense. The good news for Tampa Bay is that it has fixed about half those issues. The bad news is, the other half of them are still concerning enough to think the team isn’t built to last in the NFC playoffs.
There should be less confidence about a Super Bowl 57 run after the Buccaneers fell below .500 (5-6) again after blowing a seven-point lead late in regulation at Cleveland before being upset by the Browns 23-17 in overtime.
Some might blame Todd Bowles’ poor clock management and not getting a shot at a game-winning field goal before OT. Others will point to the major lapse in coverage against Amari Cooper that set up the Browns’ winning TD. The bottom line is, the Bucs didn’t move the ball and score as many points as they should have in a favorable matchup.
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They have fixed some things since back-to-back losses to Carolina and Baltimore. Brady no longer trying to do too much. Coordinator Byron Leftwich has adjusted his play-calling well for Brady. The tight ends have gotten more involved in key situations.
Unfortunately for the offense, three other woes have lingered, and they may have gotten worse ahead of the stretch run. Here’s breaking them down, once more with feeling:
1. The Buccaneers still are not running the ball enough
Looking at the final numbers in Cleveland — 19 rushes for 94 yards when not including Brady — it would seem Tampa Bay woke up the running game with dynamic rookie Rachaad White carrying the load for injured Leonard Fournette (hip). White averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his his 14 attempts.
But consider the Bucs dropped back with Brady 46 times. That’s still looking to pass at a 70 percent clip against a porous Browns rushing defense that was giving up chunks of yards early. The Browns, meanwhile, stuck with Nick Chubb, giving him 26 carries in an attack that was much more balanced even when they were trailing late.
The Bucs, at their core, are a big-play passing offense with Brady. But they were coming off pounding the Seahawks 36 times on the ground with White and Fournette as they protected and built on a lead. Tampa Bay did a great job establishing White as a runner and outlet receiver early Sunday, but it needed to sustain that for four quarters to put away Cleveland.
The Bucs are capable of running well, even with some snags in their blocking.That’s because Brady and his receivers can soften up defenses. The run can be a strength with a greater commitment to it.
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The Bucs will win the weak NFC South ahead of the Falcons and are still on track to play the Cowboys in a wild-card playoff game. They’ll need to remember that they won in Arlington in Week 1 by riding their running game, not Brady.
2. There is consistency from only one of Brady’s key targets
Slot ace Chris Godwin finally looks fully healed from his knee injury. He scored his first TD of the season in Week 10 as he worked over the Seahawks in the middle of the field. He got another score against the Browns while catching 12 of his team-high 13 targets from Brady for 110 yards. He was by far the team’s leading receiver. White was second, catching all nine of his short targets for 45 yards.
#1Fo for 6️⃣
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) November 27, 2022
Mike Evans and Julio Jones, the Bucs’ best two outside downfield threats, combined for five catches, 71 yards and no scores against the Browns. Evans was especially off again, with just two catches on nine targets. Each one had a play of 25-plus yards, but they were non factors otherwise against a struggling secondary that was minus cornerback Greg Newsome.
Big picture, Evans has produced more yards but has been inconsistent. He was thought a shoo-in for double-digit TDs with Brady, but he’s still stuck on three after Week 12.
Brady needs all of his veterans to step up. The team certainly has missed No. 3 receiver Russell Gage (knee). The rest of the receiving corps needs to match Godwin and heat up, stat.
3. There are even more offensive line issues
There’s still uncertainty about when indispensable center Ryan Jensen (knee) can return. Although the team may have dodged another major injury with right tackle Tristan Wirfs — who was carted off late against the Browns — he is likely to miss a good bit of time with an ankle/foot ailment.
Brady was sacked three more times against the Browns. Left tackle Donovan Smith, usually a rock, had trouble with all-world edge-rusher Myles Garrett. Their interior blocking issues remain with Jensen out, Ali Marpet retired and Alex Cappa now a member of the Bengals. Rookie left guard Luke Goedeke (foot) hasn’t been available to fill in, either.
Brady has realized he doesn’t have the same time to let deep shots develop when not facilitated by play-action. Not having Jensen has bothered him. Losing Wirfs — who hasn’t allowed a sack all season — for a while will further compress the passing game.
Once again, the Bucs can examine their rushing attack and say they want to lean on it more. Evans has been too good with Brady to think his shakiness will continue. But the offensive line is the biggest concern going forward, especially with tough upcoming matchups against the defensive fronts of the Saints, 49ers and Bengals.
Brady will need to grind more to help his team win enough to be in play to win the NFC. A formula based on running defense may not seem ideal to the Buccaneers, but that identity must emerge soon for the team to avoid being one-and-done in the playoffs.