The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have suddenly won three of their last four games and find themselves at 5-5 and in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, just one game behind the Atlanta Falcons for the final playoff spot.
The Bucs have gone from the worst team in the NFL to a playoff contender thanks in large part to the maturation of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. But it is the ingenious way in which the Bucs are using him that has allowed Winston to thrive.
More specifically, it is how they are protecting him.
The Bucs are using what is essentially a short-yardage or goal-line formation on regular plays in the middle of the field. Instead of using the standard five offensive linemen and a tight end, the Bucs are often using six offensive linemen with two tight ends added to the mix.
Here is what that looks like on a first-and-10 play in the second quarter.
The benefit, of course, is that it gives Winston plenty of time to take his drop, survey the field and then hit his receiver on a slow-developing out-route.
Despite bouncing around for a second or two, no defender is within two yards of Winston when he releases the ball.
As Ron Jaworski of ESPN notes, the Bucs used the 6-offensive linemen formation on 15 plays and that Winston went 6-6 for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns behind a stacked offensive line.
In fact, according to Greg Cosell of ESPN, the Bucs have used a 6-offensive linemen formation on 15.7% of their plays this season, the most in the NFL.
That is a lot of success. But that is not the only way the Bucs are making sure Winston has time to make plays.
When the Bucs do use multiple wide receiver sets, they typically do it with a shotgun formation to get Winston into a position of being able to read the defence faster.
In the Bucs’ win over the Eagles on Sunday, the Bucs ran 35 passing plays, including sacks, scrambles, and penalties. Of those, Winston was in a shotgun formation 22 times.
Not only did the Bucs run only six pass plays out of a standard formation with five offensive linemen, one of those plays was the only sack registered by the Eagles on the afternoon.
With just the two offensive linemen on the left side and no tight end, the Eagles blitzed a defensive back who beat the running back and stripped Winston of the ball. In this case, Winston’s momentary hesitation was just enough for the defender.
When the Bucs are using six offensive linemen and two tight ends, defences are going to be less tempted to blitz.
And when given time with the extra linemen, Winston has proven deadly.
The downside to the extra offensive lineman is that Winston has fewer targets downfield.
But even when his receivers are outnumbered in the secondary, Winston has shown he has the accuracy to hit even the narrowest of windows.
The results have been incredible.
In the Bucs’ last six games, Winston is completing 61% of his passes and he has thrown 9 touchdown passes and just 2 interceptions (he also has 3 rushing touchdowns in that stretch). His 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt (yards per attempt adjusted for interceptions) during that stretch is second behind only Carson Palmer.
Both the Bucs and Winston still have a ways to go, but after a shaky start to his NFL career, Winston now looks like the real deal and the Buccaneers look like geniuses for creating a situation where he can thrive.
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