Tampa Bay Bucs 2021 Team Study

Part 23 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 22 here: New Orleans Saints. Part 24 now available: Carolina Panthers.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The ageless Tom Brady extended his legacy in 2021 with another great season. He didn’t win his eighth Super Bowl, but he led one of the NFL’s top offenses yet again. The Bucs executed efficiently in both the run and pass game, but leaned more heavily on the pass than any team in the NFL. When you do both well and lean into the pass, you’ll have an effective offense every time.

This success began up front. The Bucs’ offensive line excelled in both pass blocking and run blocking. But I also think Brady himself (and, arguably, the coaches) deserve credit for the offensive line success because he executed a quick-hitting passing game that did not allow pressure to get to him on most plays. The Bucs gave up the lowest rate of pressures in the NFL because of this symbiotic relationship between the line and the scheme. Brady’s anticipation and quick decision-making made it possible.

This led to the greatest success in high-leverage situations. They had the 3rd-best conversion rate on third and fourth down and the 2nd-best red zone efficiency. They were at their best against the blitz and high-pressure teams because their short time to throw negated the impact of pressure completely. Chart A shows the Bucs’ Adjusted Effectiveness against each defense ranked by its pressure rate on the season. Almost all of the Bucs’ strongest relative performances came against teams in the top 8 in pressure rate, who tended to fluster less experienced quarterbacks or dominate weaker offensive lines. The Bucs handled them well.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pressure rate on the season.

This whole thing worked because the Bucs could win against coverage with Godwin, Evans, Antonio Brown (for part of the season), Gronkowski, and even Fournette and the other tight ends. Brady is accurate and makes good decisions, but a quick-hitting passing game does not work if the receivers do not get open. So as long as Brady has these weapons, this whole system works. Brady is one of the NFL’s best orchestrators, but he still relies on talent around him because he is not the type of quarterback to create everything by himself.

We saw what can happen to this offense when the Bucs were not able to win on routes. Against New Orleans, after Antonio Brown had quit and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin got hurt after fewer than 20 snaps, Brady was forced to play with Scottie Miller, Tyler Johnson, and Jaelon Darden at receiver. Losing top receivers hurts any team. But the Bucs were completely discombobulated and got shutout in an embarrassing 9-0 loss. It helped that the Saints were able to exert natural pressure of course, but this was a window into what the Brady-led offense could look like without talent around him.

The offensive line has lost some key pieces in Ali Marpet (retired) and Alex Cappa (Bengals). Given how effective Brady has been at limiting time in the pocket, this should not be a disaster. But it is a slight cause for concern. Last year I would not have called the offense fragile, with depth at every key position. But this year, especially with Godwin likely not ready at the start of the season off an ACL injury, it feels like they are one or two injuries away from potentially struggling on this side of the ball, at least relative to the lofty expectations. Leonard Fournette was fantastic last year but looked much worse earlier in his career behind a weaker offensive line.

And Bruce Arians no longer runs the show. For all his flaws, he is a good head coach. I wouldn’t be too concerned as long as this team is fully healthy. Brady showed no signs of physical decline in 2021, and they still have talent. But with a tougher schedule on the horizon and much less depth, they may face more adversity than they have faced in the last couple of seasons. I am more cautious about the Bucs’ outlook in 2022 than I was heading into 2021. It’s a long season, so fragility could come into play.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

For the last few years, the Bucs defense has absolutely stonewalled running backs. They allowed the fewest yards per carry in both 2020 and 2019. Running is generally less effective than passing, but against this defense running the ball has been an absolute waste. And based only on yards per carry, the Bucs took a step back in 2021, finishing 17th in yards per carry allowed. But I don’t believe anything fundamentally changed with this defense.

First, despite finishing 17th in yards per carry allowed, they did finish with the 5th-best EPA/play against the run. In other words, teams were still not running the ball in ways that improved scoring chances. On top of that, they played an extremely easy schedule of opposing quarterbacks. These teams naturally leaned into the run. They played only 5 playoff teams in the regular season, and that included the Eagles and the Patriots, two of the most run-heavy teams in the league. In those five games, opposing offenses averaged 284.6 yards passing and 81.6 yards rushing. So in the games that mattered most, they shut down the run.

They also played their best defensive football against teams that wanted to run. Chart B shows the Bucs’ defensive Adjusted Effectiveness against every opponent ranked by its run rate on the season. They predictably performed at a high level against the Eagles, Saints, Patriots, and Bears, who all needed to run the ball effectively for sustained success. This was a primary reason why my biggest wildcard bet (and win) last year was on Tampa Bay to cover -7 against the Eagles, who relied on running the ball for success.

Chart B

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent overall run rate on the season.

Against the pass, this aggressive defense blitzed at the highest rate in the NFL, leading to the 2nd-highest pressure rate. When teams sell out to pressure the quarterback in this way, they will typically outperform against bad quarterbacks but struggle relatively against savvy quarterbacks who can handle a blitz and read coverages. This benefitted the Bucs in 2021 because they faced very few good passing quarterbacks. Arguably, the only top quarterbacks they faced were Josh Allen and Matthew Stafford (twice). They went 1-2 on those games, and needed overtime to beat the Bills at home. Perhaps Dak Prescott deserves to be in that group, but the Cowboys nearly knocked off the Bucs in that game as well.

The remaining quarterbacks they faced included Matt Ryan (x2), Mac Jones, Brissett, Hurts (x2), Fields, Siemian, Taysom Hill, Heinecke, Daniel Jones, Wentz, Darnold (x2), and Zach Wilson. Next year they’ll potentially face Stafford, Kyler Murray, Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Rodgers, Mahomes, and Dak Prescott. They’ll have to perform better against these opponents.

But to be fair to Tampa Bay, their pass defense was vulnerable in part due to injuries in the secondary. They never seemed to have a full squad (until the end of the year), so it would be unfair to judge this defense too harshly. Nonetheless, even when healthy, they got burned by Stafford and the Rams in the playoffs.

They have arguably the most talent on the defensive side of the ball, top to bottom. Their defensive front features stud after stud, and they just overwhelm opposing offensive lines. Their secondary is not elite, but it’s good enough. But if they do not shift their scheme, and the schedule gets tougher, we could see some regression and vulnerability to teams that can exploit the Bucs in the passing game. With Todd Bowles taking over as head coach, there is no reason to expect things to change.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Bucs: When the wide receivers are healthy and the offensive line is playing well enough, Brady is a surgeon. Betting against him is a losing proposition. Against teams with bad quarterbacks that need to run for success, it’s a good time to back Tampa Bay.

When to fade the Bucs: When opponents can and want to pass the ball for success independent of the run game, be cautious with the Bucs. It takes a lot to beat Tampa Bay, but quarterbacks who handle the blitz well should do fine. And if the defense has a good secondary that can make it difficult for Godwin and Evans to win, it could be time to fade.

Evaluating the off-season: The off-season looked bleak early on with Brady’s retirement and the loss of two offensive linemen (it looked like it would be three). But Brady has returned, they locked up Godwin, and they look primed for another relevant season. But they did not improve in the way that many other teams have. It’s also unclear what impact Bruce Arians’ retirement will have on this team.

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