What Will The Buccaneers Offense Look Like In Week 1?
Following a successful first season under head coach Kevin O’Connell, the Minnesota Vikings are set to open the 2023 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday. Experts and fans are wondering to what lengths O’Connell can take the Vikings offense in Year 2. But coming out of the gates hot and getting to 1-0 may have more to do with the Buccaneers can, or can’t, do on offense.
Unlike the Vikings, who are bringing back almost the same offensive personnel and scheme, the Bucs are bringing in new faces at the most important spots of their offense. Gone is Tom Brady, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory in 2020 and is widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all-time. And gone, too, is offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. In to replace Brady is former No.1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. Replacing Leftwich is Dave Canales, a longtime assistant coach of Pete Carroll heading back to 2009 at USC.
The Running Game
Leftwich was the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator under Bruce Arians from 2019-21 and helped the team boast top-10 offenses in both points and yards all three seasons. However, when Arians stepped away as head coach in 2022, the offense sputtered. There was no balance on offense as Tampa Bay led the league in pass attempts while also running the ball fewer times, and less efficiently, than anyone else in the league. Their 3.4 yards per carry was 0.3 yards fewer than the next-worst team.
Canales comes in as a first-time play-caller in the league. After serving as wide receivers coach for his first eight years and quarterbacks coach for the next two under Carroll, Canales became the team’s passing game coordinator in 2020 and 2021. The Seahawks would trade Russell Wilson after the 2021 season and Canales returned to coach quarterbacks in 2022 as Geno Smith had a resurgent season.
Although he didn’t run the offense in Seattle, Canales saw how to construct an efficient running game. Under offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, the Seahawks averaged 5.0 yards per carry in 2021 (third in the NFL) and 4.8 yards in 2022 (seventh in the NFL). Unfortunately, Canales may not have the most talented backfield in the league. Leonard Fournette is gone, and although he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry in 2022, he was a reliable target in the passing game. Rachaad White takes over as RB1 but only averaged 3.7 yards on 129 carries as a rookie. Can he take on a full workload?
The Passing Game
What will likely make or break the Bucs on Sunday is what their passing game does. Although they had Brady in 2022, the offense wasn’t efficient. Sure, they ranked 2nd in passing yards, but the 26 passing touchdowns by the team only ranked 12th in the league. Their 5.9 net yards gained per pass attempt (passing yards-sack yards)/(passes attempted-times sacked) ranked 19th. The overall offense, with the 2nd-most passing yards and least rushing yards, ranked a fitting 15th overall in yardage. Even then, they ranked 25th in points scored.
Replacing Brady is Baker Mayfield. The former Heisman Trophy winner is on his fourth team in three seasons and may not have the skill set to succeed even if Canales draws up a perfect game plan. Pro Football Focus shared its 2023 QB Annual and Mayfield did not impress. He performed worse in “stable metrics”, areas of a quarterback’s game that are more indicative of future success. These included ranking in the 3rd percentile when operating in a clean pocket, the 5th percentile on first and second downs, and the 15th percentile when throwing at or beyond the first-down marker.
Mayfield is a little more effective according to “unstable metrics”, but he still ranks near the bottom of the league in most of them. He is in the 10th percentile under pressure, 26th percentile outside of the pocket, and 20th on third and fourth downs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mayfield is better when plays break down due to his play style and stature as he only stands 6’1″ and has enough mobility to extend plays.
Interestingly, where Mayfield succeeds in the passing game isn’t where he targets the most. The only area where Mayfield had league-average or better success was between the numbers on passes 10-plus yards downfield. On passes 10-19 yards downfield between the numbers, Mayfield posted a 78.8 PFF grade, only 0.7 below the league average. When throwing between the numbers 20-plus yards downfield, Mayfield boasted a 73.9 PFF grade, 13.3 over the NFL average. However, only 40 of his 335 pass attempts were thrown into these areas. Again, could his short stature keep him from being able to stay patient in the pocket and see over defenders?
Still, the Buccaneers have weapons to throw to. Receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both posted 1,000-yard campaigns in 2022. Tight end Cade Otten added 391 yards on 42 receptions, and if Mayfield’s past is any indication, he loves to throw to his tight ends. Is Mayfield able to return to his 2020 form with the talented skill-position group? Or will he regress back to his 2021 and 2022 forms that saw three teams show him the door?
What It Means For Sunday
We finally get to see what the Brian Flores-led Vikings defense can do on Sunday. We have heard players rave about the new system throughout the off-season and training camp. Fans have shared videos on social media of exotic blitzes in practice. Even safety Jay Ward was the beneficiary of a blitz dialed up in the team’s final preseason game. Now, we get to see if the production matches the hype, and the Vikings might have drawn the perfect opponent for Week 1.
The first step will be stopping the run game. It’s as old-school football as it gets, but with a new offensive system and quarterback at the helm, it’s unlikely that the Buccaneers want to throw the ball 40 times if they can help it. The Vikings were 22nd against the run in 2022 and will need to be better than that on Sunday to force the Tampa Bay offense to become one-dimensional. If they can do that and get after Mayfield and force turnovers and bad passes, the Vikings should be able to muster enough points to defeat a suspect, new-look Bucs offense. But if they allow the Bucs to gain five yards every first down then that will prevent Flores from mixing up looks to force Mayfield into bad passes.
A lot has changed for the Buccaneers and the Vikings. Now the question is, are those changes for the better or the best? On Sunday, we get our first look.
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