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Data Crunch: The Perfect Formula

Posted Nov 17, 2017

Tampa Bay's defense did four things particularly well in the win over New York, a combination that is rare but a great harbinger of success

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the New York Jets last Sunday, 15-10, behind their best defensive performance of the season. The Buccaneers did not allow a season best in net yards allowed, yards allowed per play, rushing yards, takeaways or first downs, but they did a little bit of everything better than they had in Games 1-8. It all added up to a long and fruitless afternoon for the Jets' offense.

Tampa Bay's defense did do one thing better against the Jets than it had in any previous game this year: It got off the field on third down. Thanks largely to forcing New York into eight third down tries of 11 or more yards (the highest total in any Bucs game for which the team has records), Tampa Bay allowed only three conversions in 15 tries. That's a 20% success rate for New York; the Bucs' previous 2017 best in that category was 33.3% against New England in Week Five, and overall Tampa Bay had allowed a 49.4% conversion rate coming into the Jets game.

Holding an opposing team to a third-down conversion rate of 20% or less has been a good harbinger of success for the Buccaneers throughout team history. It has not, however, guaranteed a victory. Tampa Bay's defense has accomplished that feat exactly 50 times, including last week's game, and the team is 32-18 in those games. That's a winning percentage of 64.0%.

Fortunately for the Buccaneers, there was more to the defensive formula that produced such a dominant outing against the Jets. Most notably, the Buccaneers put consistent pressure on the quarterback for the first time all season. After recording a total of eight sacks through the first eight games of the season, the Bucs got New York quarterback Josh McCown on the ground six times. It was Tampa Bay's first six-sack effort since they did the same to Seattle's Russell Wilson last November.

Not coincidentally, the Buccaneers stifled the Seahawks in that game, too, winning 14-5. As its sack total on defense go up, so does Tampa Bay's winning percentage. Here are the team's records over the last 20 years in games in which they've recorded two or fewer sacks, three to five sacks and six or more sacks:

0-2 Sacks: 73-132 (.356)

3-5 Sacks: 68-37 (.648)

6+ Sacks: 14-5 (.737)

Still, as is evident in that last line, a large number of sacks on defense does not come close to guaranteeing a victory. If we lower that bar just a bit to a more even five sacks, we find exactly 60 occasions on which the Buccaneers recorded at least that many in a game. The team is 39-21 in those games, a winning percentage of 65.0%. That's fractionally a better indicator than the third down qualifier, but still far from a sure thing.

Ah, but what if we put those two indicators together? How many times has a Buccaneer defense held an opposing team to 20% or worse on third downs and recorded at least five sacks in a game? Now we're down to 19 pieces of data. Here are those 19 games:

Third Downs
Date Opp. Sacks Made Att. Pct. Outcome
11/12/17 NYJ 6 15 3 20.0% W, 15-10
11/27/16 SEA 6 11 1 9.1% W, 14-5
10/11/15 JAX 6 8 2 25.0% W, 38-21
12/8/13 BUF 7 11 1 9.1% W, 27-6
11/21/10 at SF 6 12 3 25.0% W, 21-0
12/19/04 NO 7 13 3 23.1% L, 21-17
11/21/04 SFO 5 12 1 8.3% W, 35-3
11/14/04 at ATL 5 12 3 25.0% L, 24-14
9/19/04 SEA 5 14 1 7.1% L, 10-6
12/29/01 BAL 5 17 4 23.5% W, 22-10
10/9/00 at MIN 6 10 2 20.0% L, 30-23
9/17/00 at DET 7 12 2 16.7% W, 31-10
9/10/00 CHI 5 11 1 9.1% W, 41-0
9/3/00 at NE 6 17 4 23.5% W, 21-16
9/19/99 at PHI 9 17 4 23.5% W, 19-5
12/19/98 at WAS 5 13 2 15.4% L, 20-16
8/31/97 SFO 7 13 3 23.1% W, 13-6
10/10/93 at MIN 5 13 2 15.4% L, 15-0
12/22/91 IND 5 16 3 18.8% W, 17-3


Again, we find a high success rate but not perfection. The Buccaneers are 13-6 all-time when their defense records at least five sacks and holds the opposition to 20% or worse on third down attempts. That's a winning percentage of 68.4%.

Tampa Bay's defensive front did more than get after McCown on Sunday. It also did an excellent job at the point of attack on rushing plays, holding the Jets to 56 yards on 19 carries. Bilal Powell did break through for one 21-yard run, but the other 18 runs picked up an average of 1.9 yards per try. Of course, you can't erase that 21-yarder from the overall picture, so we'll instead highlight the Jets' overall yards-per-carry mark of 2.9. That's still very, very good, and the best Tampa Bay's defense has fared in that regard since holding Chicago to 1.3 yards per carry in the season opener.

That's a much more frequent occurrence in franchise history; a Buccaneer defense has held an opponent to three yards per carry or worse in 131 games. It's also a less decisive indicator of success. The Bucs are 67-64 in those game, for a winning percentage of 59.3%. That's quite a bit better than the franchise's all-time winning percentage of 38.8%, so there does seem to be some influence on the outcome with this statistic, but not as much so as the first two.

So now let's put all three together. Are the Buccaneers perfect when their defense allows a third-down rate of 20.0% or worse and gets at least five sacks and holds opponents to three yards or less per carry?

Third Downs
Date Opp. Sacks YPC Made Att. Pct. Outcome
11/12/17 NYJ 6 2.95 15 3 20.0% W, 15-10
9/19/04 SEA 5 2.64 14 1 7.1% L, 10-6
9/17/00 at DET 7 1.70 12 2 16.7% W, 31-10


So close! We've whittled it down to combined circumstances only seen three times in 653 regular-season Buccaneer games, and yet we're still not at a 100% winning percentage. It's still a bit of an improvement from the last chart, with a winning percentage of 66.7%, but of course that's in a very small sample size.

We need one more qualifier. What else did the Buccaneers' defense do well against the Jets? Probably the single most important thing it can do: Win the turnover battle. A Brent Grimes interception and a Lavonte David fumble recovery gave the Bucs a 2-1 edge in the takeaway department, and that's the critical difference. In the Seattle game in the above chart, the lone loss, Tampa Bay's defense did almost everything well and allowed only 10 points. But the Bucs forced just one turnover and gave it away twice.

And so we are left with two games that had all the elements that helped Tampa Bay's defense lead the way to victory against the Jets. Obviously, that kind of across the board dominance in so many categories is rare, which means we once again have a tiny sample size. Still, it's a good bet the Buccaneers are going to win when the defense can:

- Hold opponents to 20% or worse on third downs, and;

- Record at least five sacks, and;

- Hold opponents to three yards per rush or wore, and;

- Win the turnover battle.

TO Third Downs
Date Opp. Sacks YPC Ratio Made Att. Pct. Outcome
11/12/17 NYJ 6 2.95 +1 15 3 20.0% W, 15-10
9/17/00 at DET 7 1.70 +3 12 2 16.7% W, 31-10