BY IRA KAUFMAN
Get ready to embrace Captain Checkdown.
Tom Brady loves Tampa Bay’s depth at wide receiver, especially if Chris Godwin makes a full recovery, but the guys coming out of the backfield could very well hold the key to this passing game.
In talking to SiriusXM NFL Radio analysts Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller this week, they both expect Buc opponents to blitz Brady extensively this fall. And while Brady has a history of thriving against ultra-aggressive defenses, Tampa Bay’s revamped offensive line may struggle to cope with a slew of extra pass rushers.
Let’s not kid ourselves — whoever wins the competition at left guard isn’t going to be as stout as Ali Marpet in pass protection. Whoever starts at center in Week 1 at Dallas will be a step down from Ryan
Shaq Mason should be a solid replacement for Alex Cappa at right guard, but he has yet to take a snap in a Buc uniform.
The continuity up front that has helped forge one of the league’s premier units has been shattered across the interior.
Mike Evans, Godwin, Julio Jones and Russell Gage may be open down the field, but will Brady have the time to find them?
The protection in front of No. 12 has been extraordinary. The Bucs threw 56 more passes than any other team last season – and still allowed the fewest sacks.
That’s a remarkable achievement and give Brady significant credit. Few of his peers can match his rapid release or his skill in processing progressions quickly under duress. But Brady can only do so much.
Jensen, Marpet, Cappa, Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith lined up every week and protected Brady like their lives depended on it. In a sense, that was true. Now, 60 percent of that palace guard won’t be there when the games count. Opposing defensive coordinators will look at the new interior offensive line and see areas to exploit.
Brady is masterful at avoiding sacks, but this season will be particularly challenging.
One logical answer is to burn overly aggressive defenses with screens and flares. He has the weapons to succeed.
Leonard Fournette has earned Brady’s trust as a target. In five playoff games as a Buccaneer, Fournette has caught 27 of the 30 passes Brady sent his way. That’s a staggering 90 percent completion rate.
In eight seasons with the Bengals, Giovani Bernard established himself as one of the NFL’s premier pass-catching backs.
Now the Bucs have added rookie Rachaad White, who averaged a hearty 10.6 yards on 43 receptions for Arizona State last year. In New England, Brady was no stranger to the checkdown, especially once James White arrived. White, who just announced his retirement at age 30, thrived as a pass-catching back. In 2016, he was targeted 86 times and made 60 catches, ranking second on the Patriots in both
During the historic Super Bowl comeback against Atlanta, White caught 14 passes for 110 yards. In 2018, White was targeted 123 times. He caught 87 passes and scored seven times through the air, topping the Pats in all three metrics.
The Bucs easily led all teams last season with 76 completions of 20 yards or more. In 2022, operating without Rob Gronkowski, they might top the NFL in completions of 10 yards or less.
Defenses will try to pressure Brady “up the gut,” as Gene Deckerhoff might say. Brady will stare down these extra pass rushers and calmly unload to his safety valves.
Fournette averaged six targets per game last year. That number could bump up significantly, especially early in the season while Tampa Bay’s new interior line works out the communication kinks.
The Bucs are bracing for exotic blitzes coming from all angles.
Guess what? Brady’s seen them all before.
James White may be retired, but his legacy will live on in Tampa this fall.
This content was originally published here.