WEEK 8 CRYSTAL BALL - THURSDAY
Examining Tampa Bay's Early-Season Struggles
My friends, THE GURU is here to talk Tampa as the Buccaneers (3-4) prepare to host the Ravens (4-3) this evening.
Specifically, it’s time to discuss why the Bucs aren’t living up to the preseason hype. In my view, it largely comes down to three 2022 dates:
February 27: Left guard Ali Marpet unexpectedly retires after seven NFL seasons. He started 107 games for Tampa at left guard (67), right guard (29) and center (11), earning his first Pro Bowl berth in 2021.
March 18: Right guard Alex Cappa signs with the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent. He started 49 games for the Bucs at right guard from 2019-2021 and, like Marpet, was an o-line.
July 28: Center Ryan Jensen injures his LEFT knee during training camp. The largely acknowledged leader of the Tampa offensive line, Jensen started every game - regular season and playoffs - for the Bucs from 2018-21.
Three devastating dates, similar to TOMMY BIRD’s unsuccessful run with the female population at Cheltenham High School in the mid-1980s. Poor guy got more stiffarms than a defender taking on Earl Campbell.
Though Tampa’s o-line ranked among the league’s best in 2021, expectations for this season took a significant hit when Marpet retired. Fortunately, the Bucs brass moved expeditiously, filling the left guard slot by trading for Patriots guard Shaq Mason, a steady performer. Then, after Cappa bolted for Cincinnati, Tampa continued to show a sense of urgency by selecting Central Michigan’s Luke Goedeke in the second round of the NFL Draft.
The situation was not ideal, of course, but things seemed survivable until Jensen was hurt in training camp, leaving the team without their Pro Bowl center. And it doesn’t look like he’ll return anytime soon.
The center position is perhaps the most underrated in football with the player in charge of a) getting the ball to the quarterback b) making all of the line calls and c) understanding how everything fits together on a given play.
Nick Hardwick explained it well when the former Chargers Pro Bowl center spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 2017:
“Every play has a different assignment,” he said. “I determine who I’m working to, and then it’s like dominoes for the linemen around me, a cascading effect. When you come to the line of scrimmage, everyone should know their assignment. But by me calling it out, it’s just communication so everyone is really clear. And things can change last minute.”
Indeed, things can go sideways in a hurry, and they did for the Bucs when Jensen went down, taking his eight years of NFL experience with him. Of course, this created an opportunity for second-year pro Robert Hainsey, a Notre Dame alum, as the starting center.
It’s fair to say that Hainsey has acquitted himself pretty well through seven games, especially when one considers that he also was hurt in late August. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranks 16th among the 30 NFL centers who have played at least half of their team’s offensive snaps. Jensen, by the way, was 12th among all centers in 2021 as the Bucs led the NFL in passing yards and allowed the fewest sacks. So, leadership aside, not a massive dropoff.
As for the guards, PFF has graded Mason and Goedeke at 13th and 60th, respectively, out of 60 qualifying guards. Rounding out the group, are left tackle Tristan Wirfs (4th) and right tackle Donovan Smith (33rd) out of 62 qualifying tackles.
This leaves us with a unit that has two players excelling (Mason and Wirfs), two that are middle of the pack (Hainsey and Smith) and one (Goedeke) that is struggling. And one struggling player can have a major cascade effect.
Here’s what I mean. Football is a team sport and offensive line is the ultimate team position as the five linemen must work as a unit and be in concert with one another at all times. If the guy next to you doesn’t know what he’s doing, it causes problems for you and then the man next to you, and so on. A brutal domino effect as the man to your right or left either drags you down or raises you up, and vice versa.
(Note: this is not to be confused with the brutal Domino’s effect that occurs after I take down two deliver pies, a liter of soda and some boneless wings.)
Here’s another truth: high-performing offensive lines aren’t built overnight. Indeed, in order for linemen to work well together, it takes repetition after repetition, tons of film study and lots of work on technique. Continuity in training camp, Organized Team Activities (OTAs), etc. is critical as well. This means that, when a starter like Jensen gets injured, it makes life difficult on the rest of the unit as the injured player’s replacement has to get up to speed on his new job AND learn to work next to his teammates on the line.
With this backdrop, it should serve as no surprise that the Bucs o-line is last in the NFL when it comes to pass-block win rate and rushing yards per carry, per ESPN. And it’s fair to wonder if the o-line changes are playing a significant role in Tampa Bay averaging 19 points per game this season compared to 29.3 ppg in 2021 (h/t ESPN).
Tonight’s game against the Ravens is interesting as Goedeke is dealing with an injured right foot and will not play. This means Nick Leverett, who alternated with Goedeke in last weekend’s loss to Carolina and earned a PFF grade of 74.3, including 83.6 as a pass blocker, will start at left guard. Goedeke had a 55.2 rating for 48 snaps against the Panthers, actually posting the best pass-blocking numbers of his young career (69.4).
Interestingly, despite Tampa’s reduced offensive output and the fact that only Wirfs - and perhaps Mason - are performing at a high level, Pro Football Focus ranks the team’s o-line as the seventh-best unit in the NFL. That said, the results may be skewed by the fact that Wirfs is the league’s top-ranked pass blocker at any position.
The former Iowa Hawkeye is, in fact, the team’s only pass protector rated in the top 66 in the league (Mason is tied for 67th). Tampa’s highest-ranking run blocker is actually the rookie, Hainsey (67th) and Wirfs (76th) is the only other Bucs o-lineman in the top 100. Add it up and I see a unit trying to find its sea legs which, considering the chaotic offseason, makes perfect sense.
As for Tom Brady, his performance has been well below his historical standard, but it hasn’t been as bad as one might think. His touchdown-to-turnover ratio is a solid 8:3 and his completion percentage of 67% isn’t bad at all. PFF rates him fifth among all qualifying QBs and ESPN ranks him 14th in Total QBR. Again, not Brady-like but not terrible either.
I’m intrigued to see if inserting Leverett into the lineup makes a difference against the tough Baltimore front, led by Calais Campbell and former Tampa stalwart Jason Pierre-Paul. And I’m also curious about how Tampa’s seventh-rated defense will hold up against Lamar Jackson & Co.
The Ravens have had a funny season as they’ve failed to hold double-digit leads in each of their three losses with the defeats coming by a total of 11 points. That said, they led 20-10 and held on for a three-point win against Cleveland last week so maybe that memory will serve them well.
I think Tampa plays better this evening, but Baltimore gets it done. Call it Ravens, 29-26, and catch all the action this evening on Amazon Prime at 8:15 pm ET.
As for my picks, last week was a shocking 11-3, improving the season record to 61-47 (.565). Enjoy the game, all, and I’ll be back this weekend.