Offensive Breakdown: Patriots-Bucs

There wasn't much protection for Josh Freeman Thursday.

Today it’s time to start breaking down the tape from the second preseason game against the New England Patriots. I won’t lie, personally I had a busy weekend and I was not really looking forward to reviewing this game anyways. The Bucs got a dose of reality on Thursday night as the New England Patriots starters, led by Tom Brady, popped the Bucs’ first team right in the mouth. The Bucs were down 21-0 quickly and the first-stringers never really made an impact. This isn’t going to be a fun assignment, but let’s break down the Buccaneers’ offense from Thursday night.

Confusion Along the Line

The Patriots run a 3-4 defense that is actually more of a 4-3 defense, that is they basically run out of a 4-3 alignment with one of their four linebackers down on the line. What they do as well as almost anyone in the NFL now though is disguise their pressure. A linebacker that starts the play as a down-lineman is just as likely to drop back into coverage as he is to come after the quarterback. Players that walk up to the line and show blitz oftentimes don’t come at all, players who line up like they’re covering a tight end or a back often do blitz. If this all seems elementary I apologize, it just seems as though the Bucs offensive line was caught off guard by the way the Patriots played defense.

Now, obviously it’s still the preseason and this unit is still gelling and getting into the flow of things, this is not by any means the end of the world. But the communication and execution of the offensive line was pretty lousy on Thursday night. The first team was in for five series and managed to gain only 17 yards in that time, Josh Freeman was sacked twice, knocked down several more times and the entire offense seemed fairly hapless. All of the Bucs’ trouble started up front though.

Now, it can be pointed out that both of the Patriots sacks were made by Jerod Mayo and that’s not necessarily on the line, but I’ll break down those sacks for you later today and it’s pretty clear if the line had handled their responsibilities and picked up the blitz properly, neither of those sacks would have occured. That’s actually true of most sacks, but on both plays, Jerod Mayo comes untouched while the Buccaneers double or triple-team a lesser lineman.

In fact, most of the pressure occured because of poor blitz pick-up, the Bucs didn’t recognize what they were seeing, leading to missed blocks and players doubling up on what was oftentimes the slowest defender off the line. On the very first offensive snap of the game, the Patriots send six and Jerod Mayo comes untouched off the edge. It wasn’t because of the numbers game, it was because the line didn’t pick up the extra blitzer and ended up doubling down on Kyle Love. LeGarrette Blount made a solid blitz pick-up, he was the extra man who stayed in, the line just missed the assignment.

That’s just an example of the type of issue that plagued the Buccaneers line all day. The first play of the very next drive opened with a run play that was stuffed for a big loss, the breakdown in blocking occurred because Ted Larsen stumbled off the snap and Jeff Faine completely whiffed blocking anyone, this left Davin Joseph to try and block two men, each with one arm, as he moved backwards. I don’t think you need an offensive line coach to tell you that is not a strong position to block from or a good matchup.

Mistakes will happen, Ted Larsen stumbling out of a snap isn’t something you want to see but it’s not a mental error it’s a correctable physical mistake. Jeff Faine on the other hand, may as well have been a spaceman. He pushed out at air, took a step forward, turned around and went to go pick his running back up off the turf. Faine did not have a good day, for someone who is supposed to be the leader of the line and one of the smartest guys on the team, he didn’t play like it on Thursday.

I’m not trying to single anyone out, because it is the preseason and almost everything was correctable. But the Bucs need to get on the same page because that performance is on tape. The Steelers game from last season is on tape. If you want to know how to mess with this young Buccaneers offense, you have to change the look up at the line and hide where you’re bringing pressure from. So far the Bucs have not proven they can handle the really exotic blitz packages and defenses that bring pressure from every different look. The Bucs are going to need to work on that because moving forward, other teams will be trying the same thing.

The Pats never rushed more than six men.

Not a Numbers Game

The Patriots had plenty of success getting after Josh Freeman but they never rushed more than six men either. Their ability to get to Freeman came more as a result of the Bucs inability to identify and pick up blitzers, than it was because the Patriots overloaded the Bucs offense. Twice the Patriots achieved pressure and a positive result on plays in which the Bucs double-teamed Kyle Love, and once they got a sack on a play in which all three off the Bucs interior linemen triple-teamed fourth-year defensive tackle Myron Pryor. When I say poor communication and blitz pick-up, this is what I mean.

But the Bucs also demonstrated they are capable, the play after giving up a sack, Josh Freeman took the time to call out his protections at the line and despite sending six, the Patriots were unable to reach Freeman who threw what would end up being a dropped pass to Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs can handle the pressure, they just need to develop the mental toughness and the discipline to do it.

Problems at Left Tackle?

Donald Penn was a Pro Bowler last year and I will be the first one of the tell you that surprised me. Andre Carter must have been surprised when he heard that news too because he abused Penn on Thursday night. Every single time there was pressure on Josh Freeman, you could count on Andre Carter at least having a hand in it. He regularly got the corner against Penn, and at one point, beat Penn so badly he had the big man turned completely around, with arms outstretched, trying to hold Carter back as if he were bracing against a door. If it sounds bad it looked worse.

I want to believe this Buccaneer offensive-line fiasco was an isolated preseason incident, and I think in many ways it was. The issues with communication, being able to pick up the blitz, etc… That will come. Those issues will subside as the line gels and the team grows more confident.

Donald Penn’s inability to block dynamic pass-rushers off the edge though, that could be an issue all year.

Andre Carter is a veteran NFL pass-rusher, he’s got over 65 career sacks, but he’s not elite. He’s not someone defensive coordinators game plan for, he’s not a guy who is considered All-Pro. He’s just a very good pass-rusher. But he made easy work of Penn and caused Josh Freeman plenty of stress on Thursday night and the Bucs WILL have to face a couple of elite ends and outside linebackers before the end of the season.

I am legitimately concerned about Donald Penn’s ability to hold off pass-rushers like Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Demarcus Ware and Jared Allen. The Bucs will face some elite guys this season and Donald Penn is responsible for Josh Freeman’s blindside. I had concerns last season, and while I’m not saying Penn will be a revolving door this season, he did little to assuage those concerns with his play on Thursday night.

Incomplete Grades

It’s difficult to truly grade the Buccaneers offense considering their five drives yielded just one first down and the team never really seemed to find any rhythm. Receivers, backs and even Josh Freeman to some extent cannot be fully graded because they never really got to execute their phase of the game. However, on the whole the offense can be given a big fat F for Thursday night’s game.

I said at the time, this was the best thing that could have happened to the Buccaneers. The team gets a big dose of humility before the games start to count. Hopefully the team can re-commit itself to the process, work even harder and make sure not to enter 2011 feeling as though they’ve accomplished something.

They haven’t yet. But they’ll get there soon.

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