Greg Schiano's back is against the wall.
After two games, his Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 0-2. If the Bucs can't pull out an upset win (as of this writing, they're seven-point underdogs, per Bovada.lv), they'll be stuck firmly in the cellar of the cutthroat NFC South.
As ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted, a loss this weekend all but dooms the Bucs to another year of missing the playoffs:
No team has made the playoffs after an 0-3 start in 15 years, since the Buffalo Bills did it in 1998.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 20, 2013
Schiano's squarely on track for two mediocre finishes in his two seasons on the job.
Worse, Schiano was supposed to develop young franchise quarterback Josh Freeman; but not only is Freeman treading water, he's committing mutiny.
Rapoport also reported a "growing disconnect" between Freeman and Schiano, which was supported when Schiano revealed in his weekly news conference that Freeman had overslept a meeting.
It went one step further when CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reported "Freeman is likely" to ask for a trade sometime before the deadline.
Schiano's huge offseason acquisition, cornerback Darrelle Revis, had to do some backpedaling of a different sort after Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo reported Revis is unhappy with Schiano's strict rules, and their reliance on zone coverage. Revis denied the reports, per Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, but it's hard not to think Schiano's losing his grip on his squad.
Worst of all, the team Schiano and the Bucs are going on the road to face in this must-win situation? The New England Patriots.
Know Your Enemy
Not only are the perennially contending Patriots 2-0 despite one of the rockiest offseasons in recent NFL history, they're coached by Bill Belichick—with whom Schiano has a surprisingly close relationship.
Belichick, famously aloof, became close with Schiano when he coached Belichick's son, Stephen, at Rutgers University. Since then, the men have been close colleagues and friends. In an unprecedented move, Schiano and members of the Bucs staff met with Belichick and the Patriots coaches to do joint offseason prep work, per NFL.com.
The two are kindred spirits, monomaniacal micro-managers who sometimes rub people the wrong way. Belichick clearly feels playing for Schiano prepares a player for The Patriot Way: At one point, 10 players on Belichick's 90-man training camp roster were from Rutgers, per Paul Kenyon of the Providence Journal.
If anyone knows how to stop Greg Schiano, it's Bill Belichick. Then again, the reverse could be true. With his season—and, possibly, job—on the line, can Schiano defeat one of his mentors?
Know Your Strengths
Both the Patriots defense and Bucs defense are playing at a high level—ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in scoring defense, per Pro Football Reference.
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense have gotten off to a slow start. In fact, after two games they're averaging just 18 points per game. Still, the Bucs have been worse, averaging just 15.5 so far. Of the two quarterbacks, Tom Brady is far more likely to solve the Bucs defense than the other way around, so Schiano is going to have to maximize their offensive strengths.
The power running of Doug Martin is the foundation of the Bucs offense. He's averaging 3.9 yards per carry, which isn't great, but he's been very effective, running strong and picking up tough yards against defenses determined to stop him.
The Bucs offensive line has been strong this season, especially left tackle Donald Penn and center Jeremy Zuttah. With two-time Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks set to return this weekend, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, expect the Bucs to emphasize running behind the left side of the line.
Through the air, the Bucs have one scary target: wide receiver Vincent Jackson. The 6'5", 241-pound Jackson has 12 catches for 231 yards so far this season, with an incredible 19.3 yards per reception average. With a long of just 39 yards, that's not an inflated average, either; whenever Jackson catches the ball, the offense gains yards in chunks.
Know Your Weaknesses
Quarterback Josh Freeman is a big, talented athlete with a decent arm. When he knows exactly where he wants to put the ball, he can do it accurately. However, he has problems reading the field, especially under pressure. Freeman has a bad habit of making panicked throws when flustered; those rarely lead to good things.
In 2012, no quarterback threw more pressured interceptions than Freeman, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Freeman ranked 22nd out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF's under-pressure passer rating.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers line has done a good job of giving Freeman time this season. Freeman is slow to diagnose zone coverages, and he tends to struggle when given lots of targets against lots of defenders. Dropping him back in shotgun and having him pick defenses apart is the weakest part of his game.
Schiano knows this.
The Bucs have eschewed the rampant league-wide trend toward three-plus receiver sets and shotgun snaps. Per Football Outsiders' premium DVOA database (subscription required), the Bucs have lined up in shotgun just 36.4 percent of the time this season, less than any team except the Houston Texans.
The Battle Plan
The Patriots are famous for their flexible defenses. Belichick has used 3-4 and 4-3 fronts extensively throughout his tenure in New England, but this season he favors 4-3. It just so happens that the Buccaneers faced a coordinator with a similarly flexible front last week: Rob Ryan of the New Orleans Saints.
Let's look at a three-play sequence that exemplifies what the Buccaneers do best.
This is the first play of the second half, and it's the tempo-setter the Bucs (correctly) lean on heavily to establish Doug Martin: the "power" play.
Against a four-man defensive front, Bucs right guard Davin Joseph and tight end Luke Stocker will both pull:
As we see, left tackle Penn and fill-in left guard Gabe Carimi do a great job of controlling the Saints defensive line, and Joseph and Stocker have a big hole to pull through. Martin follows his blocking and picks up seven yards on this play.
The Bucs should run this play early and often, especially to the left as they did here. The key matchup will be returning left guard Carl Nicks against massive New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork looked uncharacteristically human against the Jets in Week 2; if Nicks can keep Wilfork from collapsing this running lane, the Bucs will be in business.
An interesting note: The Bucs ran this out of the shotgun, presumably to keep the Saints guessing. Freeman moved up under center for the next play, but otherwise kept the same personnel (single back, tight end, three receivers):
Just before the snap, the Saints defense shifted toward the weak side, anticipating a similar play. At the snap, the Bucs line blocks down to the weak side, and Martin takes the handoff on that side. The entire Saints defense overreacts, especially nose tackle John Jenkins. The Bucs line seals them off, creating a huge hole:
Wilson takes a counter step and blasts through the hole, picking up 16 yards:
For the third play in the sequence, the Saints have backed off a little bit. The Bucs again keep the same 11 personnel—single back with a tight end and three receivers:
The flanker and slot receiver at the top are going to run side-by-side post routes, while the split end (Kevin Ogletree) runs a go route.
The Saints are in single-high coverage, so if either of the post routes come open, free safety Malcolm Jenkins will have a very hard decision to make. The Bucs use play action to freeze the linebackers and strong safety:
This is a great way to set up the defense (after the last two plays), but Saints strong safety Roman Harper plays this perfectly. He comes up to support the run but doesn't fall for the play fake. He drops back, taking away the deep post.
Freeman sees this, but also sees Ogletree beat his man by a step on the go route. Here's where he makes the decision to throw, from his own 34:
Here's where it ends up, in perfect position down the sideline, just an eyelash beyond the reach of Ogletree. That's a 60-plus yard throw, and Freeman drops it into a bucket. Jenkins came over to help but couldn't defend that placement:
This is the way to open a half. If the Bucs can establish power early, look for a lot of very similar stuff against the Patriots.
There are a few things the Bucs did against the Saints that weren't effective—namely, any time Doug Martin ran a stretch or zone run to the side. That's not Martin's game, and it's doesn't play to the strength of the offensive line. Schiano needs to keep his powerful run blockers in short areas, and force the athletic Patriots linebackers (like Jerod Mayo) to try and run downhill and meet Martin head-on.
Once the Patriots linebackers are flying to the ball, that's when the play action will be lethal.
There are two things the Bucs could use more often against the Patriots: full rollouts and high-low route combinations. Against the Saints, the Bucs used these ideas together on one play, and it was very effective.
Here, it's 2nd-and-4 on the Bucs 10-yard line. The Bucs are in 22 personnel, with two backs and two tight ends (both to the right side). The Saints are going to send Martin the outside tight end (H-back Nate Byham) out to the left in combination:
Freeman fakes to the tailback, and rolls out to the strong side. There, he sees his shallow option is completely covered, but Byham is open deep:
The Saints have every reason to believe the Bucs are going to run here, and bite pretty hard on the play fake. Again, note how accurate Freeman is on the run. It's a little under-thrown, but makes it to the sideline where Byham picks up a 34-yard gain:
This is the best-case scenario for Freeman: letting him use the power of the play fake to Martin, his athleticism to roll away from the rush, and read only half the field. Here, Freeman only has to pick the more-open of two options, or tuck it and run.
Keep it Simple
Can Schiano pull more advanced tricks out of his bag on Sunday? Sure, but the Bucs will need to execute these bread-and-butter plays (and the play fakes that build off of them) perfectly in order to beat Belichick and the Patriots.
By controlling the line of scrimmage, and using play fakes in run formation and power runs both under center and out of shotgun formation, the Bucs should be able to keep the Patriots defense on its heels.
Can Freeman overcome his head-butting with Schiano to play the best game of his young career in one of its most-important matchups? If so, the Bucs can make the most of their tactical advantage.