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Scouting the Signal-Callers: FitzMagic, or just plain, old Ryan Fitzpatrick?

Let’s look at the Tampa Bay quarterback

NFL: Washington Redskins at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Is FitzMagic waning? If so, it begins where FitzMagic started: With the eyes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was one of the early story lines of the 2018 season. The veteran QB, starting in place of the suspended Jameis Winston, got out to a scorching start, throwing 11 touchdown passes over Tampa Bay’s first three games. But in the wake of a poor performance against the Chicago Bears in a blowout loss, Fitzpatrick returned to the bench.

Winston, however, struggled during his return to the lineup and head coach Dirk Koetter made the decision to call upon Fitzpatrick once more. The results, however, are more in line with Fitzpatrick’s game against the Bears than with his hot start. The reason? It likely has to do with his eyes.

During his tremendous beginning to the season Fitzpatrick was doing a fantastic job of looking off defenders and using his eyes to manipulate defensive backs, leading to big plays down the field. That trait was something I broke down in a piece over at Pro Football Weekly. But in his two recent starts Fitzpatrick has thrown four interceptions, and his eyes were a culprit on three of those plays.

Here is the first play, a second-and-8 play with 11:58 remaining in the first quarter of Tampa Bay’s Week 9 game against the Carolina Panthers. Fitzpatrick (14) is in the shotgun and the Buccaneers have 11 offensive personnel on the field, with three receivers to the right. Tight end O.J. Howard (80) aligns in the win. Tampa Bay runs a mirrored curl/flat passing concept on the play:

The Panthers’ defense runs a pretty conventional coverage here, as they drop into a Tampa 2 coverage:

This coverage is not something new to Fitzpatrick, he has probably seen it a million times. Fitzpatrick’s thinking on this play is as follows: With three receivers to the right side of the offense, the middle linebacker dropping into the intermediate zone will turn his hips to that side - his left - to read the three receiver side of the formation. That player? Luke Kuechly (59). Fitzpatrick opens to that side of the formation to try and move Kuechly with his eyes, before coming back to throw left to Mike Evans (13) on the deep curl. The idea is that by using his eyes, he can perhaps create some space.

The play works - to an extent - Fitzpatrick comes to the left at the last minute with his eye, however, the throw is high and intercepted by safety Eric Reid (35):

From the end zone camera, you can see how Fitzpatrick tries to play this with his eyes, but when he comes late to Evans on the curl, the throw is well off target:

Fitzpatrick’s second interception in this game came on a deep shot late in the contest, when the score was out of hand. So we can turn to the two interceptions he threw last week against the Washington Redskins, and again his eyes were a factor on both turnovers.

The first play comes from the 10:44 mark of the first quarter. The Buccaneers are driving, with the football on the Washington 19-yard line, and in position to break a scoreless tie. They face a second-and-7 and put the quarterback again in the shotgun, using a 2x2 formation. The route concept Tampa Bay runs here is a Sail concept to the left, with a post route, a route to the flat and the throw he attempts, an intermediate out route:

The Redskins are in a Cover 4:

The route combination Fitzpatrick wants to try and work is the post to the out. Against a Cover 4 scheme, a post/out pairing is a perfect play for the offense. The cornerback often carries the post route, while the safety has to try and match the out route working away from him. The one thing that Fitzpatrick needs to be clear on is whether the safety and cornerback obey those rules in the red zone. Down in the red zone teams might use a “Zorro” call to pass off these routes that switch inside/outside, to prevent the big play.

That’s exactly what happens here, and Fitzpatrick does not see it:

The QB tries to work the post route and come late to the out route, hoping to move the defenders with his eyes. But Josh Norman (#24) and D.J. Sewaringer (#36) execute this Zorro call, and stay home. That puts the cornerback in position to take advantage with the interception.

The final example comes again from the Washington game. While the first two plays showed Fitzpatrick making errors against a two-high safety look, here we see Fitzpatrick get baited into throwing an interception against a single-high safety look. In the fourth quarter of their loss against Washington the Buccaneers face a first-and-10 on their own 30-yard line, trailing 13-3. Fitzpatrick is in the shotgun and Tampa Bay has a three-receiver bunch look to the left:

This is the route concept they run:

That’s right, they return to the curl/flat design we saw on the first example. Only this time they are running it against a Cover 1 look in the secondary. Fitzpatrick opens to his right to try and throw the backside curl to Howard, who is covered by cornerback Greg Stroman (37), who gives the tight end about eight yards of cushion pre-snap. But with safety help over the top, the corner feels confident to jump this route and reads Howard’s break perfectly, crashing downhill as the tight end starts his break:

Making matters worse for the offense is the fact that Fitzpatrick locks onto Howard from the snap, never looking anywhere else on the play.

Despite the torrid start, Fitzpatrick has come back to earth and FitzMagic has waned a bit. The New York Giants defense has an opportunity on Sunday to continue that free fall, provided they do a good job of reading Fitzpatrick’s eyes.