The NFC is wide-open for the taking, and seemingly no team outside of Philadelphia wants to seize it.
Among the conference’s projected preseason favorites, no fall-off feels more inexcusable than that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers are currently 1-3 in games played outside of the NFC South. Through six weeks, they share a tenuous spot atop a division with two teams without long-term plans at quarterback and one that has already fired its head coach. The team that led the league in offensive DVOA last year looks pedestrian at best, barely cracking 20 points per game. They have only one game over 21 points all season. While the defense that lost significant personnel hasn’t lost a step, the offense that added new receiving talent is barely holding onto a positive DVOA.
Their Week 6 20-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is the latest example of this aversion to good football. The Steelers essentially played this game without their starting secondary, missing one starting safety and three starting cornerbacks. No Minkah Fitzpatrick, no Cameron Sutton, Levi Wallace and no Ahkello Witherspoon. This doesn’t even consider the loss of reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who really would have wreaked havoc on the Tampa Bay offense if he had been in the game.
What was the game plan for this kind of matchup? Run the ball, of course; unsuccessfully at that. Tampa Bay opened up eight of its 10 drives with a 1st-and-10 run. Only one of those 10 runs went for more than three yards, and only four went for positive yards. The play call is just Tampa Bay actively electing to shoot itself in the foot. Tampa Bay had four 3-and-outs on the day, and each of those drives started with a 1st-and-10 run attempt.
Tampa Bay finished the afternoon with 75 yards on 26 carries, averaging fewer than three yards per carry. Part of that has to do with Tampa Bay’s porous offensive line, a unit that has admittedly dealt with injuries and turnover since the start of the season. Leonard Fournette faced eight or more men in the box on 19% of rushes, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but that doesn’t matter when there are black-and-yellow uniforms waiting for you by the time the ball is handed off.