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Football Geekery (Week Two)

Posted Sep 13, 2013

In a new regular column, we'll channel our inner pigskin nerd and dive a little deeper into the statistics generated by the Buccaneers from week to week…This week, we look at the value of sacking Drew Brees, the Bucs' defensive trends, and more

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Bucs' chances for victory on Sunday will go up considerably if they can sack QB Drew Brees at least three times
  • Teams with wildly unbalanced defensive rankings one year tend to make small overall improvements the following season
  • An opening-day loss shouldn't put a damper on the Buccaneers' playoff hopes

A wise Buccaneer man once said, "Stats are for losers."  We concede the point, in that the ultimate worth of a football game is found in letters (Ws and Ls) rather than numbers.  Still, if treated right, the numbers can bring us a greater understanding of how wins and losses occur, or at the very least entertain us.  We hope to do that each week with our football geekery, giving you a closer look at a few pieces of statistical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current state of affairs.

Let's get started.

1. Get Him to the Ground!

Perhaps you saw this on Twitter earlier this week:

The Buccaneers' pass rush did indeed get off to a hot start against the New York Jets last weekend, recording five sacks of rookie quarterback Geno Smith.  The Bucs now have as many five-sack games in 2013 as they did all of last year.

The idea of that trend continuing in Week Two against New Orleans is very appealing, but of course Saints quarterback Drew Brees is no easy target.  Brees is perennially one of the toughest quarterbacks to get to the ground, thanks to his outstanding field vision and quick release.  Since arriving in New Orleans in 2006, he has been sacked just 1.2 times per game, on average.  (The fact that he has missed only one game in that span is surely no coincidence.)  Last week he went down just twice against the Falcons while throwing for 357 yards and two touchdowns.

But there have been some painful days for Brees along the way, and they have usually coincided with painful game outcomes for his teams.  Brees has started 170 games in his NFL career, 112 with the Saints and 58 with the San Diego Chargers, and in 27 of them he has absorbed three or more sacks.  The difference between his teams' fortunes when he takes two or fewer sacks versus three or more sacks in a game is stark.

In the 27 starts in his career in which Brees has taken at least three sacks, his teams have a 6-21 record, a dismal winning percentage of 22.2%.  In all other starts, Brees is 94-50 as an NFL starter, a winning rate of 65.3%.

This isn't cherry-picking from Brees' days on an inferior San Diego team.  He is 1-9 in three-or-more sack games since coming to New Orleans, with two of those losses coming against the Buccaneers.  And while it makes sense that a quarterback's efficiency would go down the more times he is sacked, Brees' split seems particularly wide.  Peyton Manning, another quarterback who avoids big sack numbers (for the same reasons as Brees) is 15-14 in games in which he is dropped three or more times.  Yes, that 51.7% win rate is lower than his career mark of 75.3% in all other games, but that's a less drastic split than we see from Brees.  New England's Tom Brady still manages a 35-11 record when he is sacked three or more times, compared to a 103-30 mark when he isn't.  His win rate drops only from 77.4% to 76.1% when he's dropped three times.

The point is, sacking Drew Brees would be a very good thing for the Buccaneers on Sunday.  Getting him down at least three times might just add up to a much-needed victory.

**

2. A More Balanced Defense?

It's not exactly going deep into the stats to point out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the 2012 season with the NFL's top-ranked run defense and 32nd-ranked defense.  The question is, where are those numbers headed in 2013?

Obviously, the Bucs' run defense ranking can't go up, and even if it's essentially as good as last year there's a decent chance it won't grab that top spot again.  By the same token, the pass defense ranking can't go down, and given the personnel that was added to the secondary during the offseason, it would be a surprise if it didn't go up by at least a fairly significant amount.

But that's a particularly unusual split for the Bucs' 2012 defense, and it would be interesting to know what similar teams have done in the past in the following campaign.  Fortunately for us, Football Outsiders has already done the heavy lifting on that question.

The Football Outsiders' invaluable web site already has some fascinating analysis for the beginning of the 2013 season.  In fact, it's where we found this tidbit:

However, the information below comes from the awesome Football Outsiders Almanac 2013.  Each team gets a lengthy essay in the Almanac, and part of the Buccaneers' analysis focuses on what to expect from that unbalanced defense in 2012.  The news is…well, sort of down the middle.

FO found 35 teams between 1991 and 2011 that finished in the top 10 in run defense and the bottom 10 in pass defense in the same season.  Thirty-one of those teams had a better pass defense the following season, and remember that we're talking about clubs ranked anywhere in the bottom 10, not just last overall.  That's encouraging.  On the other hand, 25 of those teams saw their run defense decline in effectiveness.  However, while those teams improved by an average of 14.1% in pass defense, they only declined by 4.1% in run defense.

That would seem to be a positive note, but when you add it all together, according to FO, the effect wasn't very large.  Football Outsiders uses a signature catch-all stat called DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) that produces most of their team and individual rankings.  You can read a full explanation of the method here, but just know that higher numbers are better for offense and lower numbers are better for defense, and the numbers do go into negative values.  Teams like the 2012 Buccaneers had a 4.2% DVOA, then improved to a 0.2% DVOA the next year.

That's perhaps mildly encouraging, but it gets better, at least according to the FO analysts.  They see the Buccaneers' defense improving by a more significant margin in 2013 thanks to some key additions (Dashon Goldson, Darrelle Revis, etc.) and the fact that most of the Bucs' defenders are trending upward.  As FO put it in their Almanac essay: "Not a single projected starter is in the decline phase of his career, and most are on the upswing."

**

3. Long Way to Go

Maybe you got a little bit worried about the Buccaneers' postseason chances after their last-second loss in New York.  Maybe you felt a little bit worse after seeing this USA Today article stating that, since 1978, only 23.7% of teams that started a season 0-1 made the playoffs.

But fear not, Buccaneer fans, because your team has shown it can overcome one measly opening-day loss.  In fact, of the 10 times that Tampa Bay has advanced to the postseason in franchise history, nearly half of those (four) have come in seasons that started with a loss.  Some Buc fans might still have a few hazy memories of one such season: 2002.  The Buccaneers opened that one with a weird overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints (a botched punt that turned into an interception in the end zone) and closed it by holding up the Lombardi Trophy in San Diego.

It's true that the USA Today article specifically excludes the nine-game strike season in 1982, and that's one of the four Buccaneer seasons on our list.  But it's also true that Tampa Bay only has to look to last year to see teams overcoming 0-1 starts to make it to the dance.  In 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks all pulled it off.

"But Buccaneers.com," you say, "that's four of 16 losing teams in Week One who made it in, which is 25%, so you're not exactly refuting that USA Today statistic."  That's a darn good point.  However, there's a reason we highlighted those four teams from last year.  The Bengals, Colts and Seahawks all lost their opening game on the road, just like the Buccaneers did last week.  Every game counts the same in the standings, but losing a home game means missing out on a greater opportunity.  Over the last 10 years, 23 of the 32 teams in the NFL have a winning percentage above .500 at home, and 20 of the 32 have won at a .550 clip or better.

Your Bucs have proven they can overcome an 0-1 start, and they still have all eight of their home games left to help them along the way.  Losing in Week One was certainly not a good thing, but neither was it a death knell for Tampa Bay's playoff hopes.

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