Tony Romo hit the nail on the head prior to kick off. During pre-game analysis, Romo told his broadcast partner Jim Nantz that the New England Patriots defense would stand their ground versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense. The Patriots had the worst defense in the league through the first four weeks, but Romo alluded to Bill Belichick’s past success versus offenses like the one Dirk Koetter runs in Tampa Bay, and how the Patriots would lean on zone coverages more than man coverages.
Koetter’s offense is centered around downhill rushing and intermediate-to-deep shot plays. It is designed to work short yardage and gain the easy yards on the ground, while allowing the passing game to focus on generating chunk plays. When operating well, the offense can be demoralizing. No defense can bear being ran through and passed on down the field continually over the course of four quarters. However, take away the the intermediate-to-deep passing success, and the offense crumbles.
Part of Tampa Bay’s struggles were how New England structured their defense. New England leaned on zone coverages, as Romo suspected, and often played conservatively. Soft Cover-3 and Cover4 calls were seen throughout from New England. Up front, the Patriots did little to rattle quarterback Jameis Winston. They did not feel the need to blitz much and their four-man pass rushes were neither aggressive or effective. The Patriots game plan was to force Winston to remain in the pocket and either beat them with precise passes down the field or work his checkdown options appropriately. Winston, and the Bucs as a whole, could accomplish neither feat.
Winston is generally not an accurate quarterback, nor does he tend to take what the defense gives him. The crossroads between being inaccurate and overzealous often puts a quarterback in the Jay Cutler tier. New England is going to beat Cutler tier quarterbacks more times than not.
This throw to Adam Humphries was not wide open, per se, but Humphries had outside leverage on the defender and was set up perfectly to catch a back shoulder pass. The defender was playing scared of losing a step on Humphries vertically, which would have given Humphries easy access to turn around and grab a sideline catch. Winston flat out missed the throw, leaving it high and wide by a few yards each direction.
In the screenshot above, DeSean Jackson was wide open between a gap in the zone coverage. Winston had made a sound, swift read on the play. His drop back was timely and he threw with confidence, knowing Jackson was open. The pass soared over Jackson’s outstretched arms, though, and nullified what could have been at least a 25-yard gain. Winston has been missing similar throws as that one throughout this season, especially to Jackson. The Bucs can not afford for him to continue missing those throws if they want any shot at competing.
The team also can not afford for Winston to pass up on easy yards in favor of reckless throws down the field to wide receivers who have no chance of being open. Winston will always be aggressive to some degree, but he needs to better learn that not every throw needs be pushed past 10-yards. It is okay to take the checkdown in the flat. But the Patriots knew he would not do that, so they gave him open short throws and allowed him to bypass them without second thought.
This is peak Winston recklessness. Winston begins the play with a play-action fake before directing his eyes down the field. He quickly realizes his deep option is not open from the jump, so he redirects his focus to the running back who floated out to the flat. Winston took a good, long look at the running back, who had a few yards of space to work with, and decided to chuck the ball down the field while under pressure to no wide receiver in particular. It was a stupid decision and a waste of a few easy yards that would have put the Bucs into a more manageable 3rd down. Winston’s aggression can be admirable sometimes, but he has to tame it better than that.
Winston’s careless decision making and inaccuracy were both on display here. Being that it was 3rd-and-9, wanting to take a shot past the sticks is completely understandable and usually the right decision. However, Winston does nothing to look off the safety through his drop back. Winston stares directly at Jackson sprinting down the sideline, giving the centerfield safety an easy read to make his way to that area. Then Winston dramatically under threw the ball. Had this pass been slightly further up the field and toward the boundary, maybe Jackson would have had a shot. Instead, Winston threw a poor jump ball to a 5-foot-10 speed receiver. Winston was lucky the defender dropped the ball as he came crashing down.
In the few instances Winston was accurate on intermediate throws, what he got from his teammates was a mixed bag. Cameron Brate dropped or failed to bring in two contested throws over the middle of the field. Neither were easy catches, but both were well-thrown balls into tight coverage. Brate rectified his miscues late in the game with a tough touchdown grab as Tampa Bay tried to mount a comeback.
Jackson, on the other hand, had two fantastic tip-toe catches on the sideline, one on a crucial 3rd-and-15. Jackson also caught the first throw on Tampa Bay’s final drive; a drive in which they got close enough to score, but could not. Running back Charles Sims dropped a wheel route on Tampa Bay’s first 3rd down of the day. The throw was placed perfectly over the defender and toward the sideline, but Sims let the ball slip right through his hands.
New England beat Tampa Bay’s offense as much as they beat themselves. A soft pass rush and wide open underneath areas played counter to how Winston wants to play. Winston does not want to sit in the pocket, exhaust his options, and go to the checkdown. Winston plays better when teams are aggressive with him, force the ball out quickly, and ask him to play out of the pocket.
Chaos is Winston’s natural environment, but Belichick constructed as peaceful a passing environment a quarterback is going to get in the NFL. Winston was out of his comfort zone. If he is going to take the next step into the upper echelon of quarterbacks, Winston has to learn to take what the defense is gifting to him and better choose his battles.