Twice on Thursday night the New England Patriots pulled Josh Freeman down for a sack. Both times it was Jerod Mayo that came streaking through the line untouched, and both times Andre Carter added pressure off the edge. A lot of people have said it’s not fair to blame the line for that because a linebacker made the plays, and I think that’s absolutely bunk. Both sacks were largely created by mental mistakes on the part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line.
As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots are very good as disguising their pressure to confuse the offense. That dynamic was in full effect on Thursday night as the Buccaneers regularly found themselves leaving rushers unabated while doubling or even tripling down on other pass-rushers. Both times the Patriots brought down Freeman it had less to do with an extra man and more to do with a missed assignment than anything. Let’s look at both sacks.
Sack One: 5:45 in 1st Quarter, 1st & 20, 14-0 on Buccaneers own 22
Pre-Play: The Patriots are in their base defense and show six men on the line, with linebacker Eric Moore down and Rob Ninkovich standing at the edge of the line, strong-side. Gary Guyton is showing blitz from the middle. Jerod Mayo is five yards off the line of scrimmage. The Bucs meanwhile have three receivers split out with a tight end and a back in, Josh Freeman is taking the snap out of the shotgun.
The Play: The pressure the Patriots are showing is not the pressure they bring. At the snap, Guyton will drop into coverage over the middle of the field while Jerod Mayo instead blitzes. Rob Ninkovich, who started on the line will lock up with the tight end in coverage. The Patriots are bringing five men. The Bucs will send Earnest Graham out to chip and then head into the flat and he will immediately be picked up by Guyton.
The blocking breaks down when the Bucs offensive line blocks down and leaves Jerod Mayo free. Rather than picking up Mayo, Jeremy Trueblood puts a hat on Eric Moore. What effectively ends up happening is at one point you have all three Buccaneer interior linemen blocking Myron Pryor (who?) while on the other end of the line Andre Carter drives Donald Penn nearly eight yards back and flushes Josh Freeman back to the pass rush. It was a complete breakdown, and the Bucs had enough blockers.
Thoughts: This is a correctible issue, the Buccaneers were caught off guard by the disguised pass-rush of Jerod Mayo, pre-play it almost seemed like they were planning to block down to pick up Guyton who dropped into pass coverage, what ended up happening is Mayo got a clear path to the quarterback and capitalized. The Bucs nearly gave up this sack on the first play of the game too, but Freeman managed to get it out of his hands in time. This time he wasn’t so lucky.
Sack Two: 14:14 in 2nd Quarter, 3rd and 8 on Buccaneers own 29
Pre-Play: The Bucs are in almost the exact same package as the previous sack, they have three receivers split out once again with a tight end on the line and Earnest Graham next to Josh Freeman in the backfield. The Patriots will counter this time with their nickel package, and put just six men in the box (not counting the corner who is locked up on the slot receiver). This is an obvious passing situation, the Patriots can pin their ears back on this play much like they could on 1st and 20 with the Bucs’ first sack.
The Play: At the snap the Patriots drop all pre-tense and bring six men. The Bucs send the tight end out on a route and leave Earnest Graham in to pick up the extra blitzer. Here is where it’s easy to give the offensive line a pass on this, Earnest Graham lets Jerod Mayo right past him as he opts to pick up Gary Guyton. Both men are coming after the quarterback, but Mayo is the first man through and the guy who will bring Freeman down.
That’s not the whole story though, the Bucs once again misdiagnose the blitz. Rather than pick up his own man, center Jeff Faine will join Davin Joseph and double-team Kyle Love. This is why Graham is stuck trying to decide who to block between the two blitzing Patriot middle linebackers. Faine should have picked up Mayo leaving Graham to try and take on Guyton (which he actually did succeed at). What happens though is Mayo comes through while Faine and Joseph both block a reserve defensive end.
The second breakdown comes off the edge. Josh Freeman by himself is capable of eluding a linebacker that comes streaking through the middle of the line, what he can’t do however is beat three men coming from three different directions. Jerod Mayo got credit for the sack, but both Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter got to Josh Freeman off the edge on that play as well. Ninkovich lucked into a good rush, Trueblood actually did keep him at bay until he saw Josh Freeman try to escape backwards, at which point he had the angle. Andre Carter on the other hand, shredded Donald Penn, easily getting the corner right off the snap.
Thoughts: Again, the pre-play stuff can be fixed. The Bucs line will eventually get to the point where the disguised pressure won’t get to them. What may not improve until he’s replaced though is the ability to block dominant edge rushers by Donald Penn. I’ve said for a while now that Penn isn’t as high-caliber as he likes to think. Make no mistakes about it, he is a very good NFL left tackle. But he’s also vulnerable to edge-rushing ends and linebackers.
The biggest thing the Bucs need to work on is avoiding the obvious passing situations. Some will always be inevitable, but the fewer the better.