TAMPA, Fla. -- The season isn't lost, but with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sitting at 2-4 on a bye week after dropping two straight to divisional opponents, things could get out of hand in a hurry. Aside from trying to solve quarterback Jameis Winston's turnover struggles (coach Bruce Arians said Monday that the Bucs will not be making a change at the quarterback position), here are key areas the team should focus on while the players are away:
Rethinking the secondary
The Bucs have the worst pass defense in the NFL, allowing 304.5 yards per game. Fourth-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves has gone from making the two biggest plays in Weeks 1 and 2 to surrendering some pretty big plays. The past two weeks in particular, he has given a lot more cushion to opposing receivers when, in his own words, “what he does best” is press. Now he’s getting picked on by opponents. The Bucs have to explore ways to help him.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bucs have given up 69.4% of passes outside the numbers on the left side (Hargreaves) and 49.3% outside the numbers on the right side (Davis). The Bucs have surrendered seven passing touchdowns on the left side of the field (outside the numbers and number to hash) versus four on the right.
Getting more production from a third receiver
Even when Breshad Perriman was healthy, he had just three receptions on 12 targets (25%). Scotty Miller has fared only slightly better -- catching three of 10 targets (30%). It might seem trivial to call these guys out with the success Chris Godwin (81.1%) and Mike Evans (50%) have had and the abundance of targets going their way, but a significant portion of Perriman's and Miller’s targets have come on third down.
Use tight ends more in the passing game
Against the Panthers, Cam Brate and O.J. Howard together were targeted on nine offensive snaps -- more than they have been all season. Still, the Bucs’ 35 targets to tight ends this season -- tied for 17th in the league -- represent just 8.75% of the Bucs’ offensive snaps, compared to the 11.24% the past two season. But if Arians wants to get tight ends more involved, the running backs have to improve in their pass-blocking.
“Running back protection-wise -- [Sunday] might have been the worst it’s been,” Arians said. “[Howard and Brate] were out there together a bunch. This was one of those [games] where … they were double-teaming outside a lot, so the middle of the field was open. Cam made a nice play on the touchdown and the other over route. O.J. had more opportunities -- he dropped a couple … they were a big part of the game plan."
Howard has had some rough moments this season, with a 15.8% drop rate -- second-worst in the league at any position behind only that of Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis -- so a cautious approach is needed. Brate has been more than steady, catching 80% of his passes with no drops.
A few more thoughts:
Although third-down defense has improved, red zone defense has declined: The defense did a much better job on third down against the Panthers than it did the previous week, allowing conversions on 20% of third downs, their best mark of the season. (By comparison, they allowed 53.3% against the Saints and 46.2% against the New York Giants). The problem is they’ve given up more touchdowns in the red zone. In the first two weeks, the Bucs didn’t surrender any touchdowns in the red zone. But in each of the past three games, the Bucs have given up three.
Time to cut their losses? The Bucs released linebacker Deone Bucannon (one-year deal, $2.5 million) last week and will net a third-round compensatory pick because, in very simple terms, it no longer offsets the loss of Kwon Alexander, who scored a megadeal with the San Francisco 49ers. A reminder: Godwin was a third-round pick, and that worked out more than OK.
The Bucs could reap more compensatory picks by cutting Perriman (one year, $4 million) and punter Bradley Pinion, who has averaged 43.6 yards on punts, 25th in the league. Although both players’ base salaries are guaranteed for 2019 and Pinion (four years, $3.6 million) would count $1 million in dead cap money in 2020, it would allow the Bucs to build toward the future without much of an impact on the present -- a rarity. The Bucs have until Week 9 to decide.