TAMPA, Fla. -- This week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston enters the most critical season of his career -- Year 5, the final year of his rookie contract -- and he does it with a new head coach, a revamped receiving corps and a new offense under Bruce Arians. What can fans expect?
Training camp was a mixed bag for Winston, who threw an unusually high number of interceptions in practices, though Arians wasn’t concerned with them, deeming some a function of the entire team learning a new offense. Many would also argue that the looks Winston was seeing from Todd Bowles’ defense -- far more complex blitzes and better disguises of coverages -- were unlike anything he’d practiced against daily before.
“In every play, I [tried] to make for him as hard as possible. I never want him to have reps where they’re easy things, where he thinks he knows exactly where he’s going with the ball, he can make that throw,” said offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who emphasized that the focus has been more on decision-making and less on what Winston can actually do with his arm.
“The number of coverages that [Bowles ran] and execute[d] -- whether it be man, zone, combinations -- as an offensive coach going against him every day, it was tough,” Arians said.
Winston saw little action this preseason, with 29 total passing attempts in three games versus 41 in 2018 and 69 in 2017 under previous head coach Dirk Koetter. Was it enough to get him ready to run a new scheme?
“I know in OTAs and training camp, I doubled the amount of reps that I’ve had since I’ve been a Buc,” Winston said. “In OTAs, I was throwing 150 balls a day. Play time [in the preseason] not as much, but I think when I [was] in there, I think we [had] some good drives, and I think we did pretty well. … [I feel] very confident.”
New offense, new targets, same favorites
Winston will be throwing to some new targets after the Bucs traded WR DeSean Jackson (41 catches for 774 yards in 2018) to the Philadelphia Eagles in March and slot receiver Adam Humphries (76 catches for 816 yards) signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
Winston's favorite target, Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans, didn’t have a single catch this preseason, and tight end Cam Brate had one. That was largely due to both players' missing time with injuries and Arians' more conservative approach to playing time.
“I know with those two, this is a completely different offense,” said Winston, who got more reps instead with No. 2 receiver Chris Godwin, along with tight end O.J. Howard, new deep threat Breshad Perriman and youngsters Justin Watson, Bobo Wilson and Scotty Miller.
“It helped build rapport with some other players, but it hurts him when [Evans and Brate] are not out there,” Arians said. “[But] that connection’s already made. Jameis knows where Mike’s going. He knows where Cam’s going. It was good in a way. They’ve got fresh legs, and we’ve worked [with] some other guys.”
Expect Evans to still be on the receiving end of Winston’s scrambling plays and in jump-ball situations in which he can use his 6-foot-5 frame to make next-to-impossible catches.
“He’s deceptively fast. He’s obviously got that size. But his catch radius is ridiculous. The only guy that I can recently compare him to but was a little bit faster is Calvin Johnson,” Arians said. “That’s the beauty of having a big, tall guy down there. He’s easy to find. He’s got great hands, so you throw those 50-50 [balls] -- I don’t mind 50-50 balls to Mike ... against any corner in the league.”
O-line growth critical
In the first preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Winston went 5-of-6 for 40 yards, with a 9-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Godwin. In the second and third preseason games, he was sacked six times on nine drives, five of which came on third down, raising significant concerns about protection, especially on long-developing pass plays.
“It’s not good to put that kind of stuff on film,” right tackle Demar Dotson said. “A lot of guys panic on it, outside looking in. That’s just not good for us. We should have done better, we’re gonna do better, and we’re gonna know that that’s not acceptable.”
The O-line was one area this offseason that the salary-cap-strapped Bucs did not upgrade, aside from re-signing left tackle Donovan Smith to a three-year, $41.5 million deal. They signed Earl Watford and traded with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday for Jerald Hawkins, but both of those players are backups -- and this group could ultimately define Winston’s performance and fate this season.
Unlike Dirk Koetter’s offense, which frequently utilized mass protection and chipping with running backs and tight ends, Arians prefers to use those players more in the passing game, no matter whom the opponent is.
“I learned when I was in Cleveland, going against Kevin Carter and Javon Kearse and that crew -- if you kept ‘em all in to help, nobody was open,” Arians said. “There wasn’t anybody to throw the damn ball to. Get ‘em out. The next time we played ‘em, we were four wide [receivers], empty [backfield], and we beat ‘em. Quarterback got hit, but we beat ‘em.”
That means that much more responsibility is on Winston to make quick decisions, especially if teams bring more pressure than the offensive line can block. That'll be imperative in Week 1 against a strong pass rush from the San Francisco 49ers.
“Get the ball out of your hands. Don’t hold on to the damn thing,” Arians said. “They’re coming.”
“These guys can get after [the quarterback]," he said. "Dee Ford, I had a couple of Kansas City games last year [as a CBS analyst], and he can really get after it. We loved Nick Bosa in the draft, and then [DeForest] Buckner and [Arik] Armstead. They’ve got a defensive line that’s got a lot of No. 1s up there, so yeah, it’s gonna be one helluva challenge.”
One thing Arians was encouraged by this preseason was ball security. When Winston was flushed from the pocket, chased from behind and sacked, he didn’t fumble, something he did last season against the Dallas Cowboys when he was hit by Randy Gregory (Jaylon Smith returned it 69 yards for a touchdown).
“That’s been a fumble in the past, but he had two hands on the ball,” Arians said.
The right kind of support
What Winston does have this season is a coach in Arians who has been in his corner since day one and who has advocated for him publicly and privately. He said he has never wanted Winston “looking over his shoulder,” believing that can wear on a quarterback’s confidence, whereas when Winston struggled coming off his three-game suspension last season, Koetter benched him.
“I’m going to go to work regardless, but it’s always a plus when your head coach believes in you,” Winston said of Arians. “That’s his position, and that’s what he’s known for. I just think he’s an amazing coach for how he’s able to relate to the player.”
Winston and Arians have had conversations about his tendency to get too amped up in games. They also have talked about Winston’s tendency to try to do too much, though Arians has been careful not to coach that out of him.
“You never want to inhibit their true personality,” Arians said.
Arians wants Winston to be smart about it and also rely on those around him.
“I think just as a competitor, you’re always constantly trying to take on more than what you should,” Winston said. “We have tremendous players on the offensive side and the defensive side. That’s been my main focus, just go out there and just do my job. Do my job right, and let everything else fall into place, and hopefully we’ll execute and win games.”