Heading into the season, most Bears fans expected Tampa Bay to look like they did last season: an underwhelming team with a quarterback in Jameis Winston who was largely incapable of getting the football to his incredibly talented cachet of weapons.
Well, they’re not and it’s not him.
Instead, on the heels of Winston’s suspension for sexually assaulting an Uber driver, there is a certain (Fitz)magic in the air down in the 2017 basement of the NFC South, and their improbably magnificent offense comes into Chicago to face the equally dominant Bears’ defense on Sunday afternoon.
However, there is a way to stop it. Find out what that is and more in my scouting report of the Buccaneers’ offense.
Barring an astonishing turn of events, Tampa Bay will ride the hot hand and go with journeyman turned sensation (again) Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback for the game against the Bears. Fitzpatrick has been incredible to start the season, throwing for over 400 yards in each of his first three starts in 2018.
Fitzpatrick, when he’s on, will make some insane downfield passes that throw his receivers open and have pinpoint touch and accuracy. He can miss badly at times though, often on comeback routes towards the sideline and other medium-depth throws. It’s really an all-or-nothing situation with him, but he does have some qualities that are there consistently.
What struck me as most impressive was his fearlessness to take hits and throw into the face of defenders. His accuracy will not diminish based on a pass rusher about to take a shot at him, but it will diminish when the defensive line is smart about what body parts they attack – specifically, his arm. He will change his arm angle or even short-arm balls due to pressure and that can cause some problems for the Bucs.
He also isn’t afraid to throw into the faces of opposing defenders, which combined with his often low arm angle makes it imperative to get hands up when pass rushing. That being said, there is a clear difference between getting hands up and leaving one’s feet, which is a no-no. He is crafty and will pump-fake his way out of sacks if defenders are not careful.
He will get too much air under his throws, which makes ball-hawking a must in the secondary. Playing the man and not the ball will lose you games. He can be reckless with the spots he puts his receivers in, setting them up for hits on occasion. He is at his best when stepping up in the pocket, making Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman major factors because their job is to not let him do that.
He will run, but he won’t scramble. Gap responsibility and not going too far upfield are vital because if he sees a clear lane he won’t hesitate to take off. He can’t outrun defensive ends so he doesn’t bother trying and generally won’t spin out of the tackle box. When he does, it doesn’t work.
Bottom line with Fitzpatrick: I don’t care how good your secondary is, if he has time with these wideouts, he will hit them for huge plays. The key to stopping him is making him uncomfortable and confused (more on that later).
Their running backs, Peyton Barber and former Bear Jacquizz Rodgers are unspectacular. They’re up and down in blitz pickup and generally don’t make much of an impact on the outcome of the game because Tampa Bay is decidedly not a running football team.
The weapons in this offense are what make it so deadly when the quarterback is hitting his spots. I don’t need to say much about Mike Evans, as we know perfectly well what he is capable of. Ditto DeSean Jackson, who at this point in his career is a known quantity – he is lethal with the deep ball but not much else. Chris Godwin is an up-and-coming player with great speed and he’s fearless over the middle of the field. He does have exploitable ball security issues, though. Adam Humphries is almost certainly a future New England Patriot.
Where it truly get special, in addition to Evans, is their tight end duo of OJ Howard and Cameron Brate. While Howard has much more long-term upside and talent, their current state makes them about equal in skill and both are used very well by head coach Dirk Koetter. Watch out for them on seam routes up the middle, where they’re covered by linebackers who usually can’t do anything to stop them. Brate is used more in the red zone because he’s a better route runner in tight areas. Howard has more big play potential.
They will bring in Anthony Auclair as a blocking TE and his presence means run most of the time, though there are exceptions.
The offensive line, from left to right: Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Evan Smith, and Demar Dotson – that name will sound familiar from Khalil Mack highlights, as the 2016 DPOY victimized him in that season. Marpet is the strength of the line in the run game but as a whole they don’t run block well and are a non-factor on the ground. Their main run plays are basic inside and outside zone, the latter of which they stink at.
They have given Fitzpatrick plenty of time against a four-man rush but they do not handle blitzes, especially properly disguised ones, well and neither does he.
What jumps out to me is how little there is in terms of creativity in Dirk Koetter’s offense. It’s all very generic – not much pre-snap motion or window-dressing, no trick plays or misdirection, and when they run play-action it’s always out of the same set (single back, fake the inside zone and usually throw a dig route over the middle). There isn’t any end around or jet sweep action, and from what I can tell they don’t really have the personnel for it.
So why have they been so good? Their play calling screams “we know our receivers will beat you and we don’t need any tricks to make it happen.”
Tendencies-wise, a motion across the formation from about a yard off the line almost always means run but Tampa Bay knows this and will throw a tendency-breaker of two in to throw off defenses and create big plays. Shotgun is mostly a pass set and when they run out of it they’re wildly unsuccessful, so that’s nothing to worry about.
When they pass with the QB under center, it’s going to be play action. I couldn’t see any tells that can tip off a play fake but given the ineffectiveness of the run game, linebackers and the secondary should prepare for the pass at all times.
They’ll run a few WR screens a game and they can be deadly, especially with Godwin but they’ll use Humphries here too. I did not see any RB screens, which they should consider to counter some of the creative blitz packages they struggle with.
Near the goal line, Fitzpatrick has the option to check to Evans if he sees one-on-one coverage. He uses this liberty frequently and often successfully.
The goal of this offense is backbreakers and chunk plays. Fitzpatrick will look for anything in the 20-30 yard range or over the top of the defense. You would think that with all the seam routes they run with Howard and Brate that they’d use them to stretch the defense and run shallow crosses under them. They do, but not often and when it happens it’s not a huge deal for defenses.
No one should be worried about underneath stuff in this offense because they can’t function if they don’t make big plays. I’ve gotten the sense that their offense is like a ticking time bomb, depending on the deep ball to keep it from blowing up. If they don’t gain big yardage on one or two plays a drive, something is bound to go wrong. The problem for their opponents has been that they’re quite good at gaining big yardage on one or two plays a drive, and it’s resulted in a 2-1 start with ridiculous numbers for Fitzpatrick.
I’ve made my thoughts on Bryce Callahan clear over the past week or so. He’s a fantastic slot cornerback who’s improved dramatically from last season to now. And Toliver, though he struggled mightily against Arizona, has some upside coming out of LSU as an undrafted free agent.
That being said, neither has anywhere near the combination of size and experience it takes to cover Mike Evans, and both will be asked to do it. Needless to say, this is a bad week for the presumed absence of Prince Amukamara. Safety help is going to be huge hear and if it doesn’t get to Evans fast enough, he could torment Chicago all afternoon.
Matchup the Bears can exploit that doesn’t involve Khalil Mack: Vic Fangio vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Note: Khalil Mack can exploit every matchup he gets. I’ll discuss something else so as not to be redundant each week.
The key to beating Tampa Bay was found by Pittsburgh last week. The mantra should be disguise, disguise, disguise. I mentioned earlier that neither the offensive line nor Fitzpatrick deals with cleverly designed blitzes all too well.
Fangio is experienced enough that he will throw everything he has at Fitzpatrick to force his eyes to dart at the rush and not at his targets. Show one side and bring the other. Show an overload and drop it all. Sugar the linebackers and bring a corner. Maybe throw in a delayed blitz here and there, because when these linemen commit to a man they struggle with peeling off and finding extra work. And tackle-end stunts, particularly with Mack and Hicks, should occur on a regular basis.
This was the Steelers’ game plan on Monday night and it worked perfectly. Fitzpatrick threw three first half interceptions and looked hapless for much of the night. He turned it on at the end and put up 14 points in the fourth quarter but from what I could tell, that was due to Pittsburgh’s defense tiring out and showing their lack of top talent.
Fortunately for the Bears, lack of talent on defense is not a problem. And the Bears have one key advantage over the Steelers or anyone else who their opponents play.
The Bears have Khalil Mack.
And they don’t.
Follow Jack Soble on Twitter—Feature Photo Credit: Kim Klement USA Today