The Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Bucs boasted a top-5 offense and a top-5 defense in 2020, making them the most balanced team in the NFL. Their 5th-ranked offense was built around an aggressive downfield passing game. The Bucs threw deep shots on every down and distance, which forced defenses to play on their heels if they didn’t want to get burned.
Tom Brady has become a master of avoiding hits. If a play did not develop into an open throw right away, Brady did not scramble and he did not often throw the ball away. Instead he would throw it up to whichever receiver had the best matchup in coverage. When he had all of his weapons at his disposal, this usually meant there was a good matchup somewhere, so it was fairly successful. But this aggressive approach led to a lot of bad throws. Brady was 4th in the NFL in bad throw percentage, which excludes spiked balls and throwaways and only factors in truly inaccurate passes. This put him in company with the likes of Drew Lock, Dwayne Haskins, Carson Wentz, and Cam Newton.
NFL QBs with > 19% Bad Throws
|Bad Throw %||Yards per Game||NFL Rank|
But this table shows that despite throwing poorly on over 20% of his throws, Brady was ultimately very successful moving the ball. The passing statistics don’t even do the Bucs offense justice. Their aggressive offense forced notably more defensive pass interference penalties than any other NFL team. Only four other teams received even half the number of defensive PI calls against them. As frustrating as it was for Chiefs fans to watch the Bucs extend drives with defensive penalties in the Super Bowl, this was nothing new.
NFL Teams with 15+ Beneficial DPI Calls
|Team||Def PI Against||Yards Gained|
No other team in the NFL had over 14 defensive pass interference calls against them all season. And as the season progressed the Bucs mixed in more high-percentage passes, particularly in key moments. In the playoffs, the Bucs extended several important drives with well-executed and well-timed screen passes to Gronkowski or Godwin. What seemed like an early struggle for offensive identity between Brady’s desire for easy yards and Arians’ famous aggressiveness resolved itself with a healthy balance and led to a Super Bowl victory.
However, they did have one weakness. When a quarterback with almost no mobility orchestrates a deep passing offense, that quarterback requires time in the pocket for sustained success. So when they faced a strong defensive line that could get pressure fast, they often failed.
This chart shows Tampa Bay’s offensive Adjusted Rating by game, ranking their opponents from the strongest defensive line (left side) to weakest (right side). These rankings average each team’s sack total and yards per carry allowed to indicate line strength in particular. Even factoring in the relative strength of their opponents, the Bucs had their worst games against the Rams (-0.47), the Saints (-1.72 and +0.22), and the Bears (-0.32). The Bucs lost all four of these games. Meanwhile, their best relative offensive games came against teams with weaker defensive lines, such as CAR (+1.30), DET (+1.91), ATL (+1.86), and LAC (+1.38).
Tampa Bay did not run frequently. They often only ran once on first or second down. Whether the running back gained two yards or five yards on that carry had a huge impact on the drive. A third-down passing play that needs only five yards opens up the playbook relative to one that needs eight yards. Strong defensive lines had a compounding impact on the Bucs’ offense, making third downs longer and getting to Brady when he needed time for the play to develop.
Overall the Bucs had a very good offense. They posted a raw Rating over 5.0 in all but 4 of their 20 games and a positive Adjusted Rating in all but 3 of their games. But they lost every one of those games where they struggled offensively. It was very difficult to beat the Bucs without winning the line battle on this side of the ball.
The Bucs’ equally impressive 4th-ranked defense absolutely shut down the run. They sold out to ensure nobody could establish a ground game, creating obvious passing situations on third-and-long where they implemented an aggressive blitz. They led the NFL in every defensive rushing category, allowing the fewest yards per carry, yards per game, rushing first downs, and rushing touchdowns. With strong talent across the defensive front they were fierce, particularly against basic offensive sets.
But the Bucs’ aggression against the run left them vulnerable to teams that implemented a more creative offense using motion or gadget plays. Aside from a few games where the Bucs had several key defensive players out due to injury and Covid late in the season, the Bucs had a negative defensive Adjusted Rating only twice all season: In both regular season games against New Orleans. In those two games, with Brees starting, the Saints injected a heavy dose of Taysom Hill into the offense using a variety of creative packages and motion schemes. Mixing up the formations and the play designs neutralized the Bucs’ aggression.
Taysom Hill v. TB
|Pass Yds/Game||Rush Yds/Game||Rec. Yds/Game|
|v. Rest of NFL||1.6||15.1||4.8|
Excluding the 4 games he started at quarterback, Taysom Hill was far more involved and successful against the Bucs than in any other games. As a division rival, the Saints knew that it took creativity to beat the Bucs’ front and unleashed their gadget player in full force. Unfortunately for the Saints, Hill was unavailable against Tampa Bay in their playoff matchup due to injury. Lacking this extra dimension, the Saints were unable to beat the Bucs’ defense and lost the game, despite beating them handily the first two outings.
Teams sought to punish Tampa Bay’s aggressive run defense through play-action passing. When opposing quarterbacks successfully coaxed the Bucs’ front to commit to the run and escaped the immediate pressure, they benefitted with single coverage matchups downfield. Proficient play-action passing teams had a slight advantage against the Bucs:
*Omitted regular season games v. NO who used T. Hill as an additional offensive dimension
This chart shows the Bucs’ defensive Adjusted Rating ranked by each opponent’s total passing yards gained on play action over the course of the season. The Bucs played below their defensive standard against ATL (-1.08 and +0.26), MIN (+0.10), CHI (+0.11), and LAC (+0.28), who all successfully employed play action. Most teams who did not feature play action were relatively good matchups for the Bucs’ defense, such as CAR (+1.12 and +0.87) and NO in their game without Taysom Hill (+0.80). The outlier bad game against WAS should be ignored because the Bucs played without several key defensive players in that game.
Teams also tried to offset the Bucs’ aggression by getting the ball to their running backs through the air. The blitz-heavy Bucs were theoretically vulnerable to screens. However, teams were rarely successful. The Bucs allowed the most catches to opposing running backs in the NFL but allowed the 6th-lowest yards per catch. This impressive performance included shutting down some of the NFL’s best receiving backs in Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffery, Austin Ekeler, David Montgomery, and D’Andre Swift.
Whether they were running or receiving, running backs struggled against Tampa Bay. Instead, the Bucs’ vulnerability came against receivers who specialized in abusing single coverage through separation or catching everything thrown their way. Several small but quick receivers had massive games against Tampa Bay’s defensive backs.
Huge Receiving Games v. TB
|T. Hill (KC)||13/269/3||5' 10"|
|C. Ridley (ATL)||10/163/1||6' 1"|
|C. Kupp (LAR)||11/145/0||6' 2"|
|R. Woods (LAR)||12/130/1||6' 0"|
|D. Moore (CAR)||8/120/0|
|N. Agholor (LV)||5/107/1||6' 0"|
Overall, when the Bucs defense was healthy, it was among the league’s best. It took a top-tier offense to really expose them, and even then it took some creativity to offset their aggression. If the Bucs keep all the pieces together in 2021, they will be a formidable defense once again.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, Tampa Bay is fairly rated going into the offseason. Although they were fortunate that several things went their way in the playoffs, they had performed at a high level all year and were worthy Super Bowl champions.
- The Bucs offense relies on completing high-variance throws, which can add variance and reduce predictability given the small sample size of one NFL game. Be careful risking too much on one game unless faced with several compelling angles.
- Expect the Bucs to perform well offensively in most games but to perform dramatically worse against the league’s strongest defensive lines.
- Expect the Bucs’ defense to outperform against teams that employ basic offensive sets without creativity, motion, or effective play action.
- Given their significant underperformance against teams with a strong defensive line and the general expectation that Brady cannot continue his high performance at this age, the Bucs tend to offer excellent value in rebound spots against favorable matchups after a high profile loss.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Neither Leonard Fournette nor Ronald Jones separated themselves in 2020. Jones played better all year but Fournette had an extremely solid playoff run. I would hesitate to invest much in either player because it’s a week-to-week gamble when they are both healthy in a low-volume rushing attack. But if one gets hurt, the other offers RB1 upside given the strength of this offense.
- Tom Brady spreads the ball around when everyone is healthy. Godwin and Evans hold similar value to the Bucs but Godwin makes a better fantasy player because (1) Evans gains a higher portion of his yards through pass interference and (2) Godwin catches more balls. But with so many mouths to feed, nobody will emerge as a top option without injury.
- Avoid running back player props against Tampa Bay, except maybe total catches. But receivers who rely on quickness and catching in the 5’10” to 6’1″ height range can make for excellent DFS plays or over prop bets, particularly if their team employs play action successfully.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 9, New Orleans demolished Tampa Bay, 38-3. The Bucs ran into all of their weaknesses in this game. The Saints employed a creative offense that utilized Taysom Hill and nullified the Bucs’ defensive strengths. On the other side, the Saints’ strong defensive line completely shut down the Bucs’ offense. After the embarassing loss the Bucs were only 5.5-point favorites heading into a Week 10 matchup against Carolina. This presented great value for a team that projected to have a strong advantage on both sides of the ball. Predicting that the Bucs would have no problem moving the ball quickly and scoring a lot of points, and that the Panthers’ lack of creativity on offense (without McCaffery) would cause them problems, I put 5 Units on TB -5.5 and they cruised to a 46-23 victory.