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Football Geekery (Week of Aug. 20)

Posted Aug 23, 2012

This week, we look at the impact of individual 100-yard rushing games, Josh Freeman's ability to break tackles and a rookie who has made a good first impression


Coaches don't always care for stats…but we love them!  Each week, we're going to give you a closer look at three or four pieces of statistical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs.

 

Let's get started.

 

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1. 100 Reasons for Victory

 

The Buccaneers expect LeGarrette Blount and Doug Martin (and perhaps a few other backs) to work together to form a powerful rushing attack in 2012.  It remains to see which one will take the lead, or whether they might both end up with similar production.  In the end, it may be a matter of Head Coach Greg Schiano and his staff playing the hot hand.

 

Obviously, the combined rushing total of those two backs is what is going to be important to the Buccaneers' offense this fall.  However, a big day by just one of the two could be the key to victory on any given Sunday.

 

NFL teams and fans (and, particularly, fantasy football players) like to track what the league calls "superlative" game performances.  For a quarterback, that's a 300-yard passing game, and for a receiver it's a 100-yard receiving game.  Obviously, for a running back, the single-game gold standard has long been the 100-yard rushing game.

 

As it turns out, the superlative game for a running back is significantly more important than the other two.  Last year, there were 128 instances of a running back rushing for 100 or more yards in a game, and their teams compiled a record of 90-38 in those contests.  That's a winning percentage of .703, marking the fourth time in the last five years that 100-yard rushing games have been associated with a victory rate of .700 or better.  Not once in that span has that been true of games with 300-yard passers or 100-yard receivers.

 

Interestingly, a total of 128 100-yard rushing games works out to an exact average of four per team in the NFL.  The Buccaneers, doing their part, had exactly four 100-yard rushing games last year, three by Blount and one by Earnest Graham.  They also had four in 2010, all by Blount.

 

The Buccaneers definitely know the value of the 100-yard rushing game, as they're 11-4 when they've had one over the last five years.  Over the past 10 years, they are 25-8 in such contests.

 

Last year, Tampa Bay was just 2-2 in the four games in which they had 100-yard rushers, but the correlation was still pretty strong.  The Bucs won their first two games in such conditions, on Monday night against Indianapolis and then two weeks later against New Orleans.  That second contest surely ranked as the team's most impressive victory in 2011.  The Bucs lost their next two games that included 100-yard Tampa Bay rushers – at Green Bay and at Tennessee – but those were by far their most competitive games during the final 10 weeks of the season.

 

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2. Better Bring Some Help

 

In 2010, Josh Freeman was second in rushing yards among all NFL quarterbacks, trailing only premier running QB Michael Vick of Philadelphia.

 

After rushing for 364 yards on 68 attempts in his first full season as a starter, Freeman saw those numbers go down in 2011, though probably not as drastically as the press clippings would have led you to believe.  Last year, in one fewer game, Freeman ran the ball 55 times for 238 yards and somewhat made up for the drop by scoring his first four NFL rushing touchdowns.

 

Whether or not Freeman is more or less inclined to tuck it and run in 2012 may be a function of the new coaching staff's preferences and the effectiveness of the team's well-constructed offensive line.  When he does run, however, Freeman is likely to be effective, even with his new, trimmer physique.  See, what the Buccaneers' fourth-year player does as well as almost any quarterback in the league is break tackles.

 

Last year, according to Football Outsiders, Freeman ranked fourth among all NFL passers in total tackles broken, with 11. The only quarterbacks to rank above him were the three most commonly associated with the running-QB archetype: Tim Tebow (22), Vick (22) and Cam Newton (13).

 

Football Outsiders even breaks the category down into tackles broken behind the line of scrimmage and beyond the line of scrimmage.  That division is made for obvious reasons – a tackle broken behind the line may just be a sack avoided, after which the quarterback still throws the ball downfield.  As it turns out, the majority of Freeman's broken tackles were of this variety, as he had seven of them behind the line.

 

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3. Smith Finding the Seam

 

There is no complicated statistical breakdown in this final note, just a single number: 34.1.

 

That is rookie running back Michael Smith's kickoff return average for the Buccaneers so far this preseason.  That has him ranked seventh in the entire NFL in that category, a bit ahead of such noted return men as Joe McKnight, Marc Mariani and Brandon Banks.

 

The biggest deficiency in this particular statistic is an obvious one: Small sample size.  Smith has racked up his average on just seven returns, which means his 74 yarder against Miami in Week One is still having a big influence on that average.  However, the rookie from Utah State has looked impressive on nearly every one of his runbacks so far, generally choosing the first open seam and hitting it at a dead sprint.  Last week against Tennessee, two of Smith's returns went for 30 yards – a perfectly acceptable result on virtually any kickoff return – another went for 25 and none were shorter than 23.  With a good number of NFL kickoffs now making it five or so yards deep in the end zone, it basically takes a 25-yard return to make it worthwhile to bring it out.

 

Smith isn't the only player the Buccaneers have put deep to return kickoffs – Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter have also gotten looks – but so far he's the only one who's had an opportunity to bring one out.  The fact that the Bucs have given the rookie so many opportunities is an indication that they're intrigued by the possibility of him winning the kickoff return job – and, first, a spot on the 53-man roster – this fall.

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