In addition to climbing back to .500 on the season, the Bucs scored more points (45) than they had in any game since their 48-21 win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, nearly 13 years ago. Winston's five touchdown passes tied an NFL rookie record. Doug Martin collected 200-plus rushing yards for the first time since November 2012. And Tampa Bay placed itself squarely in the playoff race.
After two consecutive seasons at the bottom of the league rankings, how has Tampa Bay's offense turned itself into a top-10 unit fueling a surprising postseason push? I took to the All-22 Coaches Film to find out -- and discovered an emerging franchise quarterback and supporting cast rounding into a dynamic group under coordinator Dirk Koetter's direction. Here are three reasons why the offense is groovin' headed down the stretch:
1) Jameis Winston is playing like the No. 1 overall pick.
Whenever a team expends a top-five pick on a prospect, coaches and scouts expect him to develop into a transcendent star. Any quarterback taken with the No. 1 overall choice -- as Winston was this year -- must grow into a franchise player who can lead his team to the postseason consistently.
I reviewed Winston's progress over the first 10 games of the season, and it is apparent not only that the rookie passer has the goods to grow into a franchise quarterback, but that he is the charismatic leader Tampa Bay needs to become a perennial playoff contender. Winston has helped the Buccaneers win four of their past six games, exhibiting better poise, patience and efficiency from the pocket. The rookie has completed 60.7 percent of his passes and amassed a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9:2 during that span. Most importantly, he has avoided the big mistake and shown better ball security in recent weeks.
From a scouting perspective, Winston is a classic pocket passer with terrific timing and anticipation. He possesses exceptional arm strength, exhibiting tremendous zip and velocity on pinpoint throws between the numbers. The All-22 Coaches Film from the Buccaneers' Week 11 win over the Philadelphia Eagles includes several examples of Winston's superb anticipation and timing.
Consider Vincent Jackson's 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter, which you can see below. Jackson is positioned on the left at X, on the back side of an ace wing formation. He is instructed to run a quick slant against three-deep coverage. Winston executes a three-step drop and delivers a pinpoint pass to the Pro Bowl receiver, a dart between multiple defenders inside the numbers for the touchdown. Notice how the ball comes out of his hand well before the break, as Winston delivers an accurate throw to a spot (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In addition to exhibiting terrific timing, Winston has shown excellent touch on intermediate throws. He has a great feel for dropping the ball in the bucket, particularly on seam routes in the red zone. In the play below, also from that win over the Eagles, the Buccaneers are aligned in a dubs formation, with Russell Shepard positioned in the slot. Adam Humphries will fake a tunnel screen, with Shepard bluffing a block before heading up the field on a seam route. Winston reads the flat defender and delivers a pinpoint pass to Shepard in the back of the end zone, putting the ball in the perfect spot along the end line (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Koetter is taking advantage of Winston's anticipation skills by featuring a number of in-breaking routes (digs and skinny posts) between the numbers. These not only require timing and anticipation, but the quarterback must also have the courage to let the ball fly between multiple defenders.
The video clip to the right showcases Winston's skills as an anticipation passer. He delivers a perfect dart to Mike Evans on a dig route well before the receiver comes out of his break. With the slot receiver clearing the zone on a seam route, Winston releases the ball when the defender expands, attacking a huge void in the middle of the field; this results in a 68-yard pickup.
Winston is known for his passing skills, but he's also shown better than anticipated running skills. He has already tallied four rushing touchdowns and given the offense an added dimension with his ability turn the corner on bootlegs or improvised scrambles. With Koetter willing to incorporate a few movement-based concepts, the Buccaneers' offense gives opponents problems with a multi-dimensional approach. For a team looking to make a run at a coveted playoff spot, Winston's growth as a playmaker could be the difference down the stretch.
2) Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are ideal perimeter weapons.
One of the quickest ways to accelerate the development of a young quarterback is to surround him with a cast of dominant playmakers on the perimeter. In Tampa, the Buccaneers have a collection of big-bodied athletes with the size, athleticism and leaping ability to help Winston grow into an elite passer from the pocket. Evans and Jackson, in particular, are ideal complements to the rookie's game as a pair of basketball-like athletes with strong hands and spectacular ball skills. Each guy measures 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and both earned accolades as high school basketball players. They enjoy significant advantages over smaller defensive backs, expanding the strike zone for Winston and allowing the young passer to take more chances down the field.
Evans, a second-year pro with 112 career receptions and 14 touchdowns, has flashed Pro Bowl-caliber skills as a WR1. He has seven career 100-yard games, exhibiting an uncanny ability to win "50-50" balls along the boundary. Although Evans has battled through the "dropsies" (eight drops this season), he remains a dangerous weapon on the outside due to his size, length and range. He capably runs the "Bang 8" (skinny post) and dig route (square in), but is at his best executing fade routes along the sideline. Evans' ability to out jump defenders on "alley-oop" passes gives Winston a viable option in the red zone.
Against the Eagles in Week 11, Winston took advantage of Evans' superb ball skills by targeting him on a back-shoulder fade in the first quarter. In the video clip to the right, notice how he uses his size and length to box out the defender on the play. Given Evans' basketball background, he easily wrestles the ball away from Nolan Carroll for a 4-yard score.
Jackson, an 11th-year pro with six 1,000-yard seasons, remains an elite playmaker on the perimeter. Despite lacking the speed and quickness to consistently separate from defenders, Jackson routinely gets open by utilizing his superior size and length to create space between the hashes. He has mastered the art of the "push off" with the ball in the air, which makes him a challenge to defend in one-on-one matchups. With Jackson also displaying the awareness and body control to maneuver near the back of the end zone, the Pro Bowler is a tremendous asset for Winston in the red zone.
Against the New Orleans Saintsin Week 2, Winston targeted Jackson on a seam pass that showcased the veteran's remarkable body control and ball skills. In the video clip to the right, Winston deliberately throws the ball "high and away" from defenders to give Jackson the best opportunity to make a play on a high risk pass. The combination of Jackson's athleticism and the placement of the pass allows the Buccaneers to score a touchdown in a critical situation.
With a pair of big-bodied athletes to target down the field, Winston is quickly becoming one of the NFL's most dangerous pocket passers.
3) The re-emergence of Doug Martin has ignited the running game.
After making the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012, Martin suffered through back-to-back injury-marred campaigns in which he was robbed of his explosiveness and burst, and his ability to carry the load was questioned. Although the team remained optimistic that Martin would regain the form he showed in his debut season, the thought of a banged-up runner working behind an offensive line littered with rookies led to skepticism from most observers. Martin had only posted two 100-yard games in his last 17 games entering 2015; during that two-year span, he didn't appear to hit the hole with the same ferocity and violence he once had.
In 2015, however, Martin is showing better balance, body control and vision with the ball in his hands. He is not only spotting creases on the back side of the defense, but he is running through arm tackles and showing more elusiveness in traffic. While he doesn't have the top-end speed to completely run away from defenders, Martin has enough juice to deliver big plays as a runner -- and now the fourth-year pro is on track to notch his second 1,000-yard campaign.
Against the Eagles, the Buccaneers gave Martin the ball on a variety of runs designed to probe the defense between the tackles and on the perimeter. On his 58-yard run in the first quarter, which you can see in the video clip to the right, Martin took a "toss-flip" (fake fullback dive, tailback toss) around the corner against a confused defense. Notice how Martin turned the corner on the play and ran through a handful of arm tackles to deliver an explosive play for the Buccaneers.
For all of the credit that Martin rightfully deserves for sparking the Buccaneers' running game, it's worth mentioning the drastic improvement on an offensive line featuring a pair of rookies leading the way. Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet have played exceptionally well at the point of attack, exhibiting a toughness and nasty demeanor that has fortified the Buccaneers' blue-collar approach. Smith, in particular, has been very impressive manning the edges in the run game. From sealing the edge to latching on to defenders on the second level, Smith has grown into a solid player early in his career.
With Smith and Co. paving the way, Martin ranks second in rushing yards (941) and averages 5.0 yards per attempt. Most impressively, he has posted four games with at least 100 yards and shown the ability to handle a heavy workload, with five games with 20-plus carries.