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Data Crunch: Ground Superiority

Posted Sep 22, 2017

The Buccaneers ran the ball well and defended it even better in their 2017 season opener, and their lopsided edge in that category made victory almost a sure thing - presented by Jabil.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season-opening win over the Chicago Bears included a strip-sack by breakout candidate Noah Spence, an interception by rising star Kwon Alexander and three catches by the team's flashy new weapon on offense, DeSean Jackson. Five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy hit Bears quarterback Mike Glennon four times. The Buccaneers' first touchdown of the entire season was a hookup between the two players who are probably the team's biggest draws right now: Jameis Winston and Mike Evans.

Yes, there was plenty of sizzle in Tampa Bay's 29-7 demolition of its former division rivals, but there was also a very vanilla reason the Buccaneers won so handily: They ran the football much better than the Bears.

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Under the direction of Dirk Koetter, who was the team's offensive coordinator in 2015 before moving into the head coach's office in 2016, Tampa Bay has tried to structure its offense around a consistent rushing attack. It worked quite well in 2015 (the Bucs ranked fifth in the league's rushing yardage ranking) and not so well in 2016 (they fell to 24th in the NFL), but the commitment never wavered. Tampa Bay ranked ninth in the NFL in both 2015 and 2016 in percentage of plays that were runs, with nearly identical percentages (44.7% and 42.5%). In terms of running the ball on first down, the Buccaneers ranked fifth in 2015 (57.5%) and third in 2016 (55.3%).

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense got a new coordinator in 2016 – former Koetter Atlanta cohort Mike Smith – and became one of the league's most successful units in the second half of the season after some early struggles. As good as the Buccaneers were at taking the ball away and preventing points in the last half of last year, they did not stop the run to the satisfaction of Koetter or Smith. As a result, the Buccaneers made several additions to the roster aimed at becoming more stout up the middle, including defensive tackle Chris Baker, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and – more recently – safety T.J. Ward.

It all clicked in the first game of 2017. The Buccaneers ran the ball 34 times for 117 yards. The per-carry average of 3.4 yards did not meet the Bucs' internal goal, but the running game was effective enough to keep the offense in short third-down situations in the first half, and to kill the clock in the second half. The Bucs ran the ball on 20 of their 28 first downs, including all but one in the second half. That one first-down pass in the second half came early in the third quarter, after a pair of good first-down runs by Barber helped the Bucs get close to midfield. That's when Jameis Winston took a play-action shot downfield, just missing a touchdown connections with DeSean Jackson.

The defense was even better. The Chicago duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen had powered a 125-yard ground game for the Bears against Atlanta in Week One, but the Bucs' defense only allowed 20 yards on 16 carries. That was the eighth-lowest rushing yardage total Tampa Bay had ever allowed in a single game, and it's lowest since 2013. The Bears average of 1.3 yards per carry was the ninth-lowest the Buccaneers had ever allowed in a single game.

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Put it all together and you have an enormous edge for the Buccaneers in one critical area of the game. Tampa Bay out-rushed Chicago by 97 yards, and that kind of margin is almost associated with (if not always causally the reason for) victory. In Tampa Bay's 42-season history (including the one game of 2017), they have out-rushed their opponent by 90 or more yards 63 times. They have won 55 of those games. That's a pretty nifty 87.3% win rate.

This is not confined to Buccaneer history. In just the last 20 years (plus the first two weeks of 2017) there have been 1,334 instances of a team out-rushing its opponent by 90 or more yards. Those teams have a 1,161-182-1 record, for a winning percentage of 87.1%.

Of course, the success rate goes up as teams dominate in this area by even larger margins, as shown in the chart below.

It's not surprising that the Buccaneers were among those 86% that won even though they didn't run the ball all that effectively on a per-carry basis. Tampa Bay's goal going into each game is to gain 125 rushing yards or, if there aren't enough opportunities to get to that total, to at least average 4.5 yards per carry. The Bucs did neither of those things on Sunday, but they got close in total yardage and that combined with dominance on the other side of the ball did the trick.


In fact, that is almost always the way such a combination of rushing numbers plays out. Since the 1970 NFL merger there have been 138 instances of a team out-rushing its opponent by 90 or more yards BUT not averaging at least 3.50 yards per carry. The record for the teams that put up those numbers: 133-5.

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That this winning percentage of over 96% is even better than the overall group of teams with a 90+-yard rushing edge speaks to the issue of causation we briefly noted above. It's fair to say that the Buccaneers ran the ball 34 times against the Bears in large part because they forged a big early lead and were therefore content to keep it on the ground and chew up the clock. Tampa Bay kept running the ball throughout the fourth quarter even though Chicago obviously knew it was coming, which made it hard to break off any big plays and thus kept the rushing average down.

Should we expect more games like this, in which the rushing edge is a big part of a Buccaneers' winning effort? The good news is that games like this have tended to come in bunches in team history. The last time it happened, during the 2015 season, it also happened each of the previous two weeks and five times over an eight-game span. The Buccaneers won five of those eight games. In 1997, Tampa Bay accomplished the feat three times in their first six games and started the season 5-1. (They would put two more such games on the ledger, both wins, later in the season.) Five of the 63 games on the list came in 1979, the Buccaneers' first playoff season, after they had recorded just two such outings in their first three seasons combined.

The Buccaneers won't hold many opponents to 20 or fewer rushing yards, considering it's only happened eight times in more than 41 seasons. But they will also have better results of their own on the ground, most likely, in some of the remaining 15 outings of 2017. As long as they can consistently out-rush their opponents, they will continue to put up 'Ws.'