TAMPA, Fla. -- Four games into the 2019 season and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, the "quarterback whisperer" brought in to elevate Jameis Winston's play, has begun to make an impact on the fifth-year quarterback in the most pivotal year of his young career. After a dismal, three-interception performance in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, Winston threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-40 road upset of the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
It was Winston’s third career game with both 300 yards and four passing touchdowns -- the most in Bucs history -- and it was the first time in his career that he threw for three-plus touchdowns in back-to-back games.
"He’s just growing in the offense,” Arians said Monday. “I think Byron [Leftwich] and Clyde [Christensen] are doing a great job with him, fundamentally and mentally. I don’t know if anybody’s played better the last three weeks than he has, and the numbers should bear it -- we put a lot of points up.”
The numbers do bear it in three key categories:
Making better throws into tight windows
Winston is throwing a much better ball into tight windows than he did during his previous four seasons, particularly in the last two weeks, where he leads the NFL in touchdown passes (3), passing yards (186) and completion percentage on tight-window throws (65%; minimum five attempts), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. (NFL Next Gen Stats defines tight-window throws as those with less than one yard of separation between receiver and defender.)
Winston's completion rate on tight-window throws from 2016 to 2018 was 37% -- 20th out of 34 quarterbacks with at least 100 such passes. Last season alone it was 33%, and he was tied for a league-high six interceptions on such throws with Derek Carr and Eli Manning.
This season, though, even with the three-interception performance against the 49ers, he has completed 50% and four touchdown passes on tight-window throws -- both the most of any quarterback in the league -- and his 228 passing yards on tight-window throws are second only to Matthew Stafford.
Beating the blitz
Winston went 8-of-10 for 150 yards and three touchdowns when the Rams blitzed Sunday, the second week in a row he threw three touchdown passes against the blitz. Also, 62% of his attempts against the blitz this season have gone for either a first down or a touchdown, which leads the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- and those numbers have gone up from last year.
His completion percentage against the blitz has gone up from 63% in 2018 to 79% in 2019, and that figure isn’t skewed by shorter passes, either. In fact, he’s nearly doubled his yards per attempt in that category year-over-year, from 7.0 to 13.5. In 11 games in 2018, he had a 2-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz and has already tripled that number in just four games in 2019. Only Lamar Jackson has thrown more touchdowns when facing the blitz this year.
Getting the ball out faster
Winston has never been thought of as a "quick strike" quarterback, but it’s a must against some of the better pass rushes in the league. Winston is averaging 2.63 seconds in the pocket before passing this year -- tied for 10th in the league -- which is an improvement from 2.80 seconds last year (25th). The past two weeks, it’s been even better -- 2.48 seconds -- third-best in the league, just behind quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Tom Brady. And Winston is doing it with far more yards per completion: 15 -- the most in the NFL over the past two weeks.
"You have to play fearless and that’s one of my biggest messages to Jameis: throw it,” Arians said. “Don’t worry about it, just throw it and know why you’re throwing it. We have to play that way. We still have some young DBs who are playing a little careful, and my message to them is, 'It’s time to play fearless. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake, but don’t hold your breath -- let it go.'"
Areas to build on: Red zone, throwing against zone defenses
There are two areas Winston can build on. One is scoring in the red zone. He completed 5-of-6 (83.3 percent) of his passes in the red zone Sunday -- all off play-action -- for three passing touchdowns. But the previous week against the Giants, Winston went 1-for-5 (20 percent).
Winston’s play against zone defenses can also improve. While the Rams made a significant shift from man coverage to zone this year, all four of Winston’s touchdowns came against zone. Winston's four interceptions in zone coverage lead the NFL this season, which is important to note because this week’s opponent, the New Orleans Saints, have played zone coverage on 67 percent of their defensive snaps this season, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL.