Far from flawless, Bucs showed glimpses of improved offense vs. Vikings

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 26-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings was far from a flawless effort for an offense still trying to get in sync. They missed some early deep shots, kept their defense on the field way too long and got a huge assist from Vikings kicker Dan Bailey’s three missed field goals and missed extra point. But they showed signs of improvement coming off the bye week, which will be critical in this final stretch of the season to secure a trip to the playoffs, and beyond.

Here’s a closer look at what they did:

Committed more to the run game

Coming into Sunday’s game, quarterback Tom Brady’s 474 passing attempts were second-most in the league. But after a week off, getting back to the basics wasn’t a bad idea. Brady had just 23 passing attempts -- his fewest in a game since 2016 -- while Ronald Jones rushed for 80 yards on 18 carries.

Some of those carries came with an extra defender in the box, but the Bucs found success with Joe Haeg stepping in as an extra blocker -- and not just at the goal line -- something they got away from after Haeg’s poor performance filling in for Ali Marpet against the New Orleans Saints in Week 9.

It resulted in more manageable third-down opportunities. It also set up play-action. The Bucs went 4-for-6 on play-action passes for 57 yards and those plays resulted in three first downs, averaging 9.5 yards per play. On the opening drive of the second half, the Bucs ran the ball five times between Jones and LeSean McCoy, mixing inside runs with outside runs, giving the Bucs a single-high safety look for Brady’s 29-yard completion to Mike Evans on a fade route.

It led to Rob Gronkowski’s 2-yard touchdown -- also off play-action, and with motion -- with Cam Brate motioning from left to right, clearing out a defender for Brady to roll out (also something new, as Brady has seldom thrown from outside the pocket this season) and hit Gronkowski on a fade into the right corner of the end zone.

Benched Fournette, brought in McCoy

McCoy hadn’t taken a handoff since Week 6, while Leonard Fournette, who had overtaken McCoy in the third-down back role, had three drops against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11, but recovered with three catches on three targets against the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, with neither McCoy nor Fournette playing special teams, it was difficult to get both on the field, and Brady had advocated to get McCoy some touches.

“I love Leonard. I think he’s a heck of a kid and a great player. We just wanted to get 'Shady' [McCoy] back involved,” Arians said. “He’s fresh and he showed it today. He made it all pay off for me. I took the risk and he made it pay off. He made the best of his opportunity, but it’s nothing against Leonard.”

“It’s very tough just being that patient. I haven’t played since like Week 3 or 4, so I’ve been waiting,” McCoy said. “Not really having that many practice reps, and that’s been really tough for me and my career. ... Even when Coach tells you, ‘You’ll get your shot.’ All I asked for was an opportunity. I’m gonna play my role and keep going and hopefully it may improve.”

On third-and-2 at the start of the third quarter, McCoy pounded the middle for 10 yards, and ripped a 14-yard run on another third-and-2, setting up Brady’s TD throw to Gronkowski.

Incorporated more pre-snap motion

Pre-snap motion forces defenses to tip their hand. After using it just 13 times against the Saints in Week 9, they’ve done it at a higher rate. In fact, all three of the Bucs’ touchdowns came with motion. On Brady’s 48-yard touchdown to Scotty Miller, Miller motioned from the left to right side of the formation. And while he wasn’t the first or even the second read on the play, it gave Brady a look he wanted against Cover 3.

Got Miller involved

Miller had just two targets over the last three weeks, despite being arguably Brady’s best deep-ball threat and actually leading the Bucs in receiving yards through the early portion of the season. They got away from Miller due to groin and hip injuries that have nagged him all season, but he said he’s returned to health. Given Miller’s 4.36 speed and chemistry with Brady, they need to find a way to not only incorporate him into the offense, but prioritize him, while still utilizing Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, two of Brady’s most reliable weapons in the short passing game.

“That play, I was one of the later reads,” Miller said. “It was a deep post [and] I think [Brady] was going through a flat route and then an intermediate out route. Then, I think he saw the one-high safety creep down and I had a one-on-one with the corner. So, I think he probably liked the matchup and I was able to run right by him pretty clean.”

Brady and Miller hadn't hooked up for a deep pass like that since Miller's 33-yard touchdown against the Raiders. But according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brady's top four longest passes of the season in terms of air distance have all gone to Miller.