Normally, if the Panthers were due to face a team who had benched their starter midway through the previous game and were now turning to a backup who has thrown 141 interceptions in 137 games across fourteen seasons and seven teams, they would feel pretty good about their chances of a good defensive performance – in the passing game at least.
But Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a normal backup quarterback.
First, despite having only played the full 16 games three times, he averages nearly 10 games a season for his career, with the only seasons he played less than that being his first three seasons in the NFL and last season in Tampa Bay. What is more, despite – or possibly because of – having had Fitzpatrick take almost exactly half their passing snaps, the Buccaneers currently lead the NFL in passing yards and are a more-than-healthy third in passing touchdowns. Those aren’t backup numbers.
While there isn’t time or space to go into every facet of the Buccaneers passing attack here, there is one area where they have excelled under Ryan Fitzpatrick this season: the deep passing game. Nearly a full quarter of all his completions have been for at least twenty yards – and while the Panthers will need to be wary of being nickel-and-dimed down the field, with the Buccaneers’ rushing attack ranking 28th in the NFL in yards-per-carry, stopping the Buccaneers deep passing attack will be crucial in their attempts to move to 6-2 and maintain their perfect home record.
So how do they do it?
Make The Easy Plays
While the Buccaneers do run a lot of downfield passes, they have gotten some big plays this season from short passing plays through yards after the catch – and while it would be unreasonable to expect the Panthers to not allow any yards after the catch on Sunday, allowing receivers to take simple screen twenty yards down the field is far from ideal:
Similarly, letting a tight end take a 13 yard crossing route 75 yards for the touchdown also has less to do with scheme or play design than it does poor tackling and pursuit angles on the part of the defense:
The Buccaneers do a lot to generate big plays down the field, but if the Panthers don’t do the basics well, they likely won’t need to do much to prevent big plays.
Man Coverage Limitations
If you take out the two plays above where the majority of the yardage was gained after the catch, Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown 21 passes of over twenty yards, and 15 of these have been against man coverage – some of that success has to be put down to play calling. The Buccaneers have one of the best groups of offensive skill position players with four good receivers, a pair of good tight ends and running backs who can catch a pass or two; it is always going to be difficult to match up with them on a player-by-player basis. The Panthers knew this was going to be the case going into the season and added players like Donte Jackson and Ross Cockrell to match up with the Buccaneers receivers, but with Cockrell out for the season, they are likely going to struggle to lock down the Buccaneers receivers without help.
What this means from a scheme point of view is that the Panthers will have to be careful about how they use man coverage against the Buccaneers, as without giving the players in man coverage help both over the top and inside, the Buccaneers will likely be able to have their way with the Panthers’ corners. The Saints took the bold strategy of going to a man coverage play with no safety help over the top, forcing the corners to guard the inside of the field and both outside receivers fake inside before breaking downfield – the end result is Fitzpatrick being able to pick his wide-open receiver:
The throw here isn’t amazing, but both Jackson and Evans are so wide open that it doesn’t need to be. While a deep safety wouldn’t be that effective at taking away these deep go routes, knowing that they have inside help makes it a lot easier for corners to defend the deep thirds. Similarly, the Steelers blitz in man coverage on the following play, and while they do have a deep safety, the Buccaneers are able to run a receiver up the middle to force him up the field opening up the intermediate middle for a long gain:
It is always going to be hard for players in man coverage to take away the middle of the field without risking being beaten outside, and by not having players to add difficulty to these throws over the middle, it is relatively simple for Fitzpatrick to generate these chunk plays. They ran this same coverage late in the game and somehow managed to get beaten on the outside even still, but if the Buccaneers had any in-breaking routes on this play they would likely have been wide open:
There is always going to be a risk in playing man coverage against a team with as many weapons as the Buccaneers, but there is no need to make things more difficult than they have to be. Bradberry and Jackson match up very well with Evans and Jackson, but these are very good receivers and the Panthers need to respect than and put their corners in positions where they can be successful rather than heaping responsibility on their shoulders.