Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Inside the NFL Film Room: Could the Bucs Be Sneaky Good?

With a reinvigorated running game led by Doug Martin, could Tampa Bay be a spoiler in the NFC?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Look, I don't want to jinx Florida teams coming off wins (my piece on the Dolphins' new offensive and defensive schemes came just days before the Dolphins were throttled by New England), but Tampa Bay may not totally stink.


While they are in last place in the NFC South, the Buccaneers are 3-4 with a young and talented team that is improving and discovering its strengths each week. This may not be a playoff team this year, but if rookie quarterback Jameis Winston can continue to develop, Tampa Bay could mess up things for a bunch of teams left on its schedule.

Let's take a look at what the Bucs are starting to do right.

The Return of the Muscle Hamster

After a fantastic rookie campaign in 2012 that saw Doug Martin rush for over 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Tampa Bay running back formerly known as Muscle Hamster fell off a bit the last two seasons.

Part of that was health. Martin played in just 17 combined games in 2013 and 2014, but Martin and Tampa Bay's woes on the ground went deeper than that. Averaging just 3.7 yards per carry over that span, Martin saw his production sink to just 45 yards per game in 11 starts last season, a far cry from the 91 yards per game he churned out as a rookie, and way down from the 4.6 yards per carry he averaged in 2012.

But now Martin is back, though he doesn't want us to call him Muscle Hamster anymore (too bad, because that's the best nickname ever). Martin is again averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 2015, and rushing for 87.5 yards per game in seven starts. He's on pace for 1,400 yards this season, but how has Martin gotten back on track?

Well, the Bucs simply have a better offensive line, and one that is more built to zone block. 2015 second round pick Donovan Smith has been plugged in at left tackle, while left guard Logan Mankins is fully healthy and playing like the guy Pats fans were nervous about trading away before last year. On the right side, veteran tackle Gosder Cherilus has solidified things next to another 2015 second rounder, guard Ali Marpet. Center Joe Hawley is another free agent signing that is paying big dividends.

Basically, Tampa Bay blew things up after things went south on offense last year. Coordinator Jeff Tedford has been replaced by former Falcons OC Dirk Koetter, who utilized zone blocking schemes to make the most of another bowling ball running back, Maurice Jones-Drew, when he held the same position in Jacksonville, and the offensive line has been rebuilt around a pair of rookies and free agent signings, plus a now healthy Mankins.

Let's take a look at the Bucs' pet play this year, the inside zone, and an interesting wrinkle they used to run it in their big win over Atlanta.
For all pictures, click to enlarge
At first glance, this simply looks like a run-heavy look, with only a single wide receiver split out, but take a look at the formation, and what it forces Atlanta to do, from the end zone cam.
The Bucs have placed three tight ends to the left side of the formation, creating an "overload" strong side, and forcing Atlanta to compensate for it in a major way. The Falcons have shifted all three of their linebackers to the strong side, with one standing up almost as a fifth defensive lineman over the outside tight end. Just because of the sheer numbers (and absence of a wide receiver on that side), Atlanta's strong side corner has also walked into the box to join the fray.

Even safety Ricardo Allen has shifted himself a bit to the strong side, though he is lined up about 15 yards off the ball. All that's left on the weak side is a defensive tackle, defensive end and the strong safety who has also walked up. Naturally, Tampa Bay is going to run its inside zone to the weak side, where numbers are more favorable.

Unlike in man blocking where each lineman is designated to block a particular defender, zone blocking lines move laterally, usually in unison, with each lineman responsible for blocking a particular "space." On this play, the Bucs linemen will zone step to the right and attempt to reach block whichever defender crosses their face. If two offensive linemen end up on one Falcons defender, then the one to the right can break off and get to the second level to set another block.
And here we see that zone step to the right, with each Bucs lineman reaching to the right to seal a defender inside. The lone exception is the right tackle Cherilus, who will look to seal the Falcons' defensive end to the outside to create a running lane inside. Marpet (74) has zone stepped right to try to hook the strong safety on the right, but the defensive tackle is still in his way. That's ok in zone blocking. He'll battle him with help from the center Hawley, who is also reaching to the right, and then Marpet will get the chance to scrape off to the next level after the double team.

On the back side of the play, Mankins makes, perhaps, the most important block of the run, reaching right and sealing the strong side tackle to the left. The strength of zone blocking is that, as lines move in unison, natural holes emerge, requiring the back to make a single cut, usually a cut back, to an open lane. Mankins' block assures us that the cut back lane will not be clogged by a defensive lineman.
Here we see the double team on the play side fully locked in, and the kick out block of the end executed. Mankins has been aided by Smith who has also reached to the right. There are still a linebacker and safety unaccounted for, but we'll get to that.
Mankins and Smith's double team of the tackle has now pushed him back, and the linebacker has been "caught up in the wash," but he has at least helped push things down to eliminate a cut back lane. The play side safety is pushing down hard to the inside to try and eliminate an alley that has emerged on the right hash.
But, by pushing things down inside, the safety has allowed himself to get hooked by Marpet, trapping him inside, and opening up a new lane to the outside. Martin sees this and cuts to the right.
Martin gets outside, and nobody is there to meet him until Allen comes all the way up from his free safety position to save a touchdown. The Bucs gain 15 yards.

Atlanta would actually adjust, bringing extra defenders into the box and run blitzing to cover gaps before zone blocking could develop for the Bucs later in the game, but this same adjustment opened the Atlanta secondary up to shots down the field (more on that later).

Martin's three-game 100 yard rushing streak ended when he finished with just 71 against Atlanta, but this early success on the ground paved the way for a Tampa Bay win.

Adding More Beef Up Front

But Tampa Bay isn't just creating favorable blocking numbers with tight end overloads, they're also going back to some traditional smash-mouth football.
Here the Bucs line up with two tight ends and a fullback in front of backup running back Charles Sims. The left tight end (your right) is actually backup offensive guard Kevin Pamphile, a late round after thought out of Purdue who is finding a nice niche for himself as a blocking tight end that plays between 10 and 15 snaps a game.

Notice the numbers Atlanta has to pack into the box to have a prayer of stopping a potential run. Five defenders on the line of scrimmage (3 DL, 2 LB), two other linebackers up at the second level alongside two defensive backs.
The Bucs begin blocking an inside zone to the right (your left), with the center and back side guard latching a double team onto Atlanta's nose tackle. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane will run to the inside hole as an "iso" blocker intended to knock back anybody that might clog Sims' desired running lane.
Lane gets a little caught up and isn't able to get to linebacker Justin Durant (52), but there's still the potential for someone in Tampa's double team to scrape off and knock him back.
And that's just what happens, as Hawley breaks off from the double team to block Durant. Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow (55) still isn't technically blocked, but the left-to-right movement of the entire Bucs line has sealed him outside of the inside crease that is emerging.
Sims cuts back to the middle and isn't touched until five yards off the line of scrimmage when Durant finally makes contact alongside corner Robert Alford.

The runs gains seven yards, and the Bucs continue to set the tone with their brutal running game.

Capitalizing on the Ground Game

But the Bucs still aren't good enough to ONLY run the ball (pretty much nobody in the NFL is any more), so Winston and his talented pass catchers need to generate some plays against loaded Atlanta fronts.
 Here we again see the Bucs line up with Pamphile in as a blocking tight end on the left, and Lane in at fullback. The Falcons are clearly thinking run, with six defenders up on the line of scrimmage, and a pair of linebackers behind the line keying on the backfield as well.
Ricardo Allen is once again the lone high safety, and at the snap of the ball we see Atlanta's linebackers drop into a zone covering nobody. That's because receiver Mike Evans is running an out-and-up at the top of your screen against Desmond Trufant, while Donteea Dye runs a deep route as well on the bottom.

Because the Falcons linebackers and safeties respect the run before dropping into their zones, Atlanta is forced to play man coverage on the outside, with only one safety to cover the entire deep part of the field. Tampa Bay has also kept Pamphile and Lane in to pass protect, giving them seven blockers to protect Winston against five rushers, and give Evans time to run his double-move.
At the top of his route, Evans creates separation from Trufant, and Winston hits the back of his drop and releases the ball.
To Allen's credit, he makes a great play to come over the top and grab the ball (which was slightly under thrown), but not before the desperate Trufant grabs hold of Evans, drawing a pass interference call.

The Bucs gain 39 yards on the penalty, and would score just five plays later to take a commanding 20-3 lead.

So, is Tampa Bay a Super Bowl contender? Certainly not right now, but Sunday's win over Atlanta showed just how much the Bucs have grown since their season-opening blowout loss to Tennessee.

Tampa can now run the ball, and create opportunities down the field off of both play action and run heavy formations. The next step will be Jameis Winston becoming more efficient when his ground game gives him favorable matchups, and that should come with time.

In a division with suddenly vulnerable Atlanta, hot-and-cold New Orleans, and undefeated, but largely weaponless Carolina, why can't Tampa Bay play the role of spoiler and ruin somebody's season, while setting itself up for a bright future?

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