TAMPA, Fla. -- For months this offseason, before playing a down, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were touted as an all-star team. Quarterback Tom Brady would lift them out of obscurity, to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and maybe even a hometown Super Bowl.
While the Bucs did their best to manage outside noise, they were brought back down to Earth on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Or as tight end O.J. Howard said, the Bucs were served a “piece of humble pie.” They looked like a team whose stars are working to jell after the absence of an offseason. Meanwhile, the Saints, who have won the NFC South the past three seasons, didn’t appear to miss a beat.
Yes, it was just one game -- but is it time to reset expectations for the Bucs? Just how big of a jump will they have to make to match the Saints, who have set the standard for the division? Here’s a closer look at where the Bucs struggled and how they can regroup this week against the Carolina Panthers.
Has Brady lost it?
No. But a big part of his game is precision, timing and trust, and he didn’t have the benefit of that with no offseason. This is especially true for option routes, in which the quarterback and receiver have to be on the same page in terms of what they’re seeing, which was why Mike Evans didn’t continue running downfield on Brady’s first pick on Sunday against the Saints.
Strictly looking at Brady as a thrower -- his off-target percentage (which measures overthrown and underthrown passes) was 20.6% on Sunday, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data, which was 23rd in the league, the same as the Panthers' Teddy Bridgewater. (By comparison, the Saints' Drew Brees was 17.2%, the Jaguars' Gardner Minshew 0%, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson 2.9% and the Patriots' Cam Newton 5.3%.) Brady's off-target percentage was better than his 21.7% from last season, third-highest in the NFL -- and it’s about two percentage points higher than it was from 2001 to '17 (18.7%). But his tight-window completion percentage was also 20% -- significantly lower than his career 33.5% -- and among the lowest in the league in Week 1. He completed only one of five such passes Sunday.
Brady’s completion percentage took a nosedive when he was under duress or hit, dropping from 63.9% total for the game to 33.3% when hit or under duress. It didn’t help that the Bucs got away from their desired 50-50 run-pass split against the Saints, with Brady attempting 40 passes versus 26 run plays. In the past two seasons, Brady has had 11 games in which he threw more than 40 pass attempts.
The good news is this week’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers, is starting four rookies on defense and allowed the Raiders' Derek Carr to complete 73.3% of his passes -- eighth-worst in the NFL -- and he was pressured on just 10% of his dropbacks, the lowest in the NFL. The Bucs’ Week 4 opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers (25.6%), and Week 15 opponent, the Chicago Bears (21.7%), are also in the bottom half of the league in the category after Week 1.
The Bucs’ offensive line surrendered three sacks and six quarterback hits Sunday against the Saints -- two from left tackle Donovan Smith, who struggled with the same inconsistencies that have plagued him the past five seasons. He let Carl Granderson blow right past him on a three-man rush with 3:43 left in the fourth quarter that resulted in a sack-fumble at the New Orleans 21.
“I was very disappointed in his play,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “I think every now and then he reverts back to some techniques that are not very good [and] he got beat. He had, probably, the easiest guy to block up there and he did a poor job. It was one of his poorer games, and [I] expect for him to bounce back this week, yes.”
Smith, who is in the final year of guaranteed money in his contract, posted a 73.9% pass block win rate, according to ESPN Statistics & Information research -- 129th in the league among all offensive linemen in Week 1 and 54th among 58 offensive tackles. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who started his first NFL game, had a 70.8% pass block win rate and was 56th, but Arians pointed out that Wirfs spent most of the game battling Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan.
There was optimism from the Bucs that Brady’s quick release would result in fewer sacks than what they encountered with Jameis Winston. But that didn’t happen, and unless it improves, the 43-year-old Brady won’t make it through 16 games.
The Panthers didn’t record a sack last week for the first time since 2018. The Bucs’ Week 3 opponent, the Denver Broncos, also has a young defense and is dealing with the loss of Von Miller and possibly A.J. Bouye on the back end.
Running the ball
Those expecting the additions of Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy and a beefed up Ronald Jones II to produce "wow" moments Sunday had to be disappointed. The group averaged 3.31 yards per carry (27th in the league).
“RoJo, I thought, had a really decisive day,” Arians said. “He ran hard and made yards when there were no yards to be made a couple of times. Leonard’s role will increase, and we’ll just see how much.”
They didn’t exactly have much room to work with, averaging 2.35 yards before first contact, which was 23rd in the league. The Bucs had a 73.8% run-blocking win rate -- just above the league average of 72.5%.
Their running backs averaged 2.22 yards per carry running outside -- 29th in the league. They also had 1.22 yards before contact on these off-tackle runs -- also 29th in the league.
“Our tight ends did not block the edge very well. That was a big part of our game plan and we got beat at it. We were out-physicaled,” Arians said.
The good news again? The Panthers surrendered 133 rushing yards and 4.29 yards per carry Sunday.
Penalties continue to plague the Bucs; they were the worst in the league in that category in 2019. On Sunday, they had nine penalties for 103 yards -- tied for fourth-most in the NFL and one off from the league lead. Meanwhile, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs had one penalty on Thursday night.
An offside penalty by Vita Vea in the second quarter gave the Saints new life on fourth-and-2. Ndamukong Suh did the same thing on first down on that same drive at the Tampa Bay 25, setting up a 29-yard field goal by Wil Lutz. Smith and Wirfs both had false starts in the third quarter in a game that players said was quieter than warm-ups due to the 75-decibel limit on artificial crowd noise.
“Sometimes I believe there will be some penalties that will happen, just in the flow of the game," Bucs defensive lineman Will Gholston said. "But as far as stopping pre-snap penalties -- that just comes with focus, tightening down, being more alert, being more alert to the situations and having a better understanding of it.
“The pre-snap penalties, for sure, are all basically mental focus -- just being able to lock in, be honed and be ready. Sometimes you can get overanxious and overzealous, but just locking in and understanding the down and distance and what’s going on.”