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Saturday’s Tampa Bay-Washington playoff - Keys to the Game

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I sat down to work on a Keys to the Game article for the upcoming wildcard round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I quickly realized that the article was going to be encyclopedic. It was also going to take me two weeks to write, but the game is just two days away; it is scheduled for 8:15 pm this Saturday night.

Clearly, I had to re-think my plan.

I decided to write a series of articles instead. each one focusing on a different aspect of the playoff matchup between the Football Team and the Buccaneers


Third playoff game in nine seasons

The Washington Football Team is at home for a (Super) Wildcard Weekend playoff game for the third time in nine seasons. In the playoffs following the 2012 season, the Redskins jumped out to an early lead against the Seahawks before Robert Griffin’s knee collapsed, seemingly taking the team’s playoff hopes to the turf with him. It’s easy to forget that Washington held the lead against the Seahawks until the middle of the 4th quarter before eventually losing by 10 points. In January of 2016, the Kirk Cousins-led Redskins held the lead until the Packers scored a touchdown with 28 seconds remaining in the first half. The Skins re-took the lead against Green Bay in the middle of the third quarter before the Packers offense took over, eventually winning by 17.

Of course, early leads don’t count; only the final score does, and Washington’s recent playoff history has produced deflating results:

Seahawks 24 Redskins 14

Packers 35 Redskins 18

While the thought of simply qualifying for the playoffs would have delighted most Washington fans prior to the start of the 2020 season, now that it has happened, and especially in the light of how much struggle has gone into getting here, I think the team and its fans need to be thinking about winning Saturday night’s game.

That certainly seems to be where Ron Rivera’s head is at if his “WON, NOT DONE” division championship tee shirts are any indication.

The problem, of course, is that the Buccaneers are a good football team, led by the most obvious Hall of Fame quarterback ever to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Tampa Bay is well-coached, well-quarterbacked, and has a talented roster. Welcome to the playoffs, where that describes just about every potential opponent.

Tampa Bay is good, but they are not invulnerable. The team’s 11-5 record and second-place finish in the NFC South are a testament to that. They were defeated 5 times in 16 games. What I’d like to do in this article is look at a few specific games to identify what roadmap might be available to show Washington a path to victory.

I have a simple theory. If I don’t know a lot about an opponent and I want to know what it takes to beat them, I look at the teams that have beaten them already. In this case, four teams beat the Bucs during the season (the Saints did it twice).

Offensively, I don’t think the Washington football team can mimic either the Saints or Chiefs. That leaves the Bears and the Rams as the models to be studied. Because the Giants played Tampa Bay tough (they led the game through three quarters and lost 25-23 on a failed 2-pt conversion with 28 seconds to play), and because the Giants are relatively similar to the WFT, I plan to look at that game as well, sometimes treating it as a success and other times as a loss.

So, my method involves looking for similarities between the Bears, Rams and Giants in their “successful” games against the Bucs.

To create some context and comparison, I will also look at three teams that lost against Tampa Bay in an effort to spot key differences between opponents’ wins & losses.

When you start looking at the numbers in detail and looking for trends, it becomes clear that some of the information I’ve listed is irrelevant. A good example of this is the Drives per game, which seems to have no clear correlation to whether Tampa Bay wins or loses.

I don’t plan to talk about every number in these charts; rather, I will try to highlight a few that seem relevant and discuss implications for the game plan against the Buccaneers that the Washington coaching staff may want to implement on Saturday night.

Points scored

It’s easy, when talking about points scored, to fall into the trap of saying nothing more than, “the team that scores the most points nearly always wins the game”.

What I see above is that the three teams that I put in the “successful game” group scored 20, 27 and 23 points, while the three clear losses involve teams that scored 17, 10, and 14 points. I’m not trying to say that you win by scoring more points; rather, I’m trying to identify the style of game that can lead to a win against this 2020 Tampa Bay team.

In the three Tampa Bay clear victories above, the margins of victory are 14, 18, and 12 points. By contrast, the three “successful” games have margins of 1, 3 and 2 points. Teams, then, that are relatively similar to the WFT have had success against Tampa Bay by playing low-scoring, defensive-oriented football games with tight margins in the final score.

The article I published on Tuesday (scoring analysis) suggested that the Washington defense is probably capable of holding the Tampa Bay scoring to about 20 points on Saturday. The analysis in this article backs up the idea that, to beat Tampa Bay, Washington needs to score more than 20 points, and is likely to require 24+ points for victory.


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The point here is that the teams that have been successful against Tampa Bay have not beaten them in shootouts; they have set the stage for a win by playing good defense and limiting Tampa Bay scoring. Even the Saints and Chiefs, who have high powered offenses capable of winning shootouts, led with defense, allowing Tampa Bay to score 23, 3, and 24 points in the Buc’s three losses against those two teams.

The key then, as I suggested in the earlier article, is to hold Tampa Bay to 24 points or less to create a chance for victory — something that the Washington defense seems very capable of.

Turnovers

In the three clear wins listed above, Tampa Bay won the turnover battle in each game. They won 4:2, 2:0, and 1:0.

By contrast, in the three “successful” games against the Bucs, the turnover battles were more even. In the two Tampa Bay losses (1:1 and 2:2) the differential was zero, and it was +1 against the Giants (2:1) in a game that the Bucs actually won.

By the way, I checked the three losses to the Chiefs and Saints, and the Saints lost the turnover battle in each of those games.

We know that turnovers are always important in NFL games. There are three potential outcomes in any given game:

  • plus turnover differential
  • minus turnover differential
  • neutral turnover differential

Like most teams, the Bucs usually lose when they have a negative differential, and they usually win when the differential is positive.

In the nine games that I checked the T/O differential for, the Bucs won each time they were on the plus side and lost each time they were on the minus side. Interestingly, the two times when the number of turnovers between the two teams was equal saw Tampa Bay lose.

This suggests that Washington doesn’t have to “win” the turnover battle to win the game, but they certainly can’t afford to lose it. In other words, if the turnover differential is zero, Washington can still win the game if the WFT defense effectively limits Tampa Bay’s point total to 24 points or less. The chances of winning the game rise for either team if they can create more takeaways than giveaways.

The run game may not be as important as we think

Look at the wins by the Rams and the Bears; they rushed for 35 and 37 yards respectively. The Giants played well against Tampa Bay, but ran for only 101 yards.

In three losses, the Panthers, Broncos and Vikings rushed for 87, 42, and 162 yards.

I had a quick look, and in Tampa Bay’s other three losses, the Chiefs and Saints had limited rushing yards in two of the games (87, 86). The most rushing yards given up by the Buccaneers in a loss this season came in the 38-3 loss to the Saints, when NO ran 37 times for 138 yards.

Tampa Bay is ranked #1 in rushing yards allowed per game, at just 80 yards per game. This creates a difficult situation for Washington, a team that tends to rely on the run as an integral part of its offense, and which isn’t best suited to heavy reliance on a passing game.

It appears, however, that heavy reliance on the passing game is what is needed to beat Tampa Bay. The Bears and Rams passed on 75% and 72% of their offensive plays, respectively. The Giants, Panthers and Vikings all passed the ball less than 65% of the time in losing efforts. The Broncos stand out for passing 74% of the time in a losing effort, but if you look at completion percentage, passing first downs and interceptions, you’ll see that they simply didn’t pass very effectively.

To win the game against Tampa Bay, the WFT may have to pass much more than they normally would. The good news is that the high-percentage short passing game that Scott Turner is most likely to employ seems to work.

The Bears completed 71% of their passes against TB and the Rams completed 76%. In fact, Tampa Bay ranks 29th in the league in completion percentage allowed, at 69% — only the Jets, Jaguars and Texans allow higher completion percentages.

But Tampa Bay is tied with Washington and Baltimore for #2 overall in yards per completion allowed.

This means that opposing offenses are not going downfield much against TB; rather, they are completing nearly 70% of their attempts by throwing short passes on slants, crossing routes, wheel routes, checkdowns and screens. This sounds custom made for Scott Turner’s offense that is built around Terry McLaurin, JD McKissic and Logan Thomas.

And while this might sound custom-made for Alex Smith, his current issues with mobility might prove problematic.

Sacks

The bad news here is that Tampa Bay ranks 4th in the NFL in sacks (tied with Arizona) with 48 sacks for the season. However, Washington is right behind them with 47.

Looking at the two charts above, in Tampa Bay’s two losses, the defensive sack totals were 3:3 and 0:1. The narrow win over the Giants saw the Bucs with a slight advantage at 1:0. In the three clear wins against the Panthers, Broncos and Vikings, the sack comparisons were 5:0, 6:2, 6:0 respectively.

This all indicates that when the Buccaneers are faced with a team that can pressure as successfully as they can, the game is within reach of the opponent. When the Tampa Bay defense can get a significant advantage in sacks, they tend to take control of the game.

This is a “good news, bad news” situation for Washington and its coaches.

On the one hand, Washington’s defense is just as capable of bringing pressure as Tampa Bay’s defense is. This argues that Washington can keep up with the Bucs in sack totals, helping them keep up on the scoreboard.

On the other hand, Alex Smith looked as immobile as a statue against the Eagles. Tampa Bay’s defense is healthy and motivated — Alex Smith could be a sitting duck against the league’s 4th ranked sacking defense.

This argues that Washington may need greater mobiity at the QB position, and Taylor Heinicke’s promising fourth quarter performance against the Panthers two weeks ago argues that maybe he should see the field for a significant amount of time against Tampa Bay.


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Four Keys to the Game Plan

Based on the competition analysis carried out above, I think there are 4 keys to Washington’s strategy for Saturday night’s playoff game:

  1. The defense needs to hold Tampa Bay to no more than 24 points. My Tuesday article suggested that it would be reasonable to expect the WFT defense to limit TB to around 20 points. (By extension, this means that the offense needs to score at least 21 points, and likely 25 or more. This was addressed in the article published on Tuesday).
  2. It’s critical that Washington not lose the turnover battle in this game. In a tough defensive struggle, the team that can get an advantage of +1 or more in the turnover differential will have a distinct advantage.
  3. Running the ball effectively may not be possible. Two teams (the Bears and Rams) each beat TB this year while rushing for fewer than 40 yards. Tampa Bay is the #1 ranked rush defense in the NFL. To win, Washington will likely need to pass on more than 70% of its offensive plays; however, the short, high-percentage passing game that Scott Turner has relied on all season long is likely to be effective against Tampa Bay, and with Antonio Gibson, JD McKissic, Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas all healthy enough to play, the team should have the receiving targets needed to run this offensive attack effectively.
  4. Sacks have been a major factor in Tampa Bay’s wins and losses this season. Generally speaking, they are able to win if they can accumulate significantly more sacks than their opponents, but they are not as successful if the sack totals are equal or if the opponent is more successful. Defensively, Washington probably has the talent needed to pressure Tom Brady for 4 quarters. The bigger question is whether Alex Smith has the mobility, given his lingering calf injury, to escape the kind of pressure he is likely to face against the NFL’s 4th ranked sack-producing defense. This may argue for Taylor Heinicke to have a large role in the game.

To win, Washington is going to have to prevail in a defensive game where the point total is in the range of 41-49 combined points. To make this happen, the Football Team cannot allow the Buccaneers to get the edge in sacks or turnovers. The WFT must at least match what Tampa Bay is able to produce on these two key metrics. If one team or the other can gain the advantage in sacks & turnovers, the team that does is likely to win.

Offensively, Washington may need to substitute the short passing game for a sustained running attack. This may mean that JD McKissic gets more touches than anyone else on the offense, and Antonio Gibson’s rushes may be limited. Because of Tampa Bay’s aggressive pass rush, Washington may find it necessary to play Taylor Heinicke in relief of Alex Smith, who might lack the mobility needed for this game.

Tampa Bay’s regular-season results argue that the game is likely to be a close defensive battle with both teams scoring in the low 20s, or else, if the Washington defense is unable to hold, a dominant win by Tampa Bay in which Washington scores 17 or fewer and loses by at least two scores. I think Washington’s quarterback play is likely to be the difference between the former and the latter results.