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Football Geekery, Week Nine

Posted Nov 1, 2013

Channeling our inner pigskin nerd, we dive a little deeper into the statistics generated by the Bucs from week to week…This week we look at sack totals by down, run-play direction and more

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Buccaneers are on pace for their best season sack total since 2004 but could still get more on third downs
  • Michael Koenen's touchback numbers remain excellent, and they are surprisingly good in home games
  • Tampa Bay's rushing attack has had its greatest success running around left end or right up the middle
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.

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1. Situational Rush

After a hot start that had it among the league leaders in quarterback sacks, the Buccaneers' defense has cooled down in the second month of the season and now ranks 22nd in the NFL in sacks per pass play.  Led by Lavonte David's 5.0 QB takedowns, Tampa Bay has 17 sacks overall, putting the team on pace for 39 by season's end.  That would be the Bucs' highest sack total in nearly a decade, since a 45-sack performance by the 2004 defense.  While that would definitely be a step in the right direction, it's fair to say the Bucs are hoping for even more from the pass rush in the second half of the season.

To get more production, the Buccaneers will need to have more success in getting to the quarterback on third downs; that is, it is in the typical pass-rushing situations that the team has actually seen its least success this year in terms of producing sacks.

Tampa Bay's 17 sacks break down like this: eight on first-down plays, five on second-down plays and four on third-down plays.  This may suggest that the Bucs have done a good job at disguised blitzes early in the down sequence – which would also help explain David's team-leading total – but it also means the defense has not stalled many drives specifically by getting the quarterback to the ground on third down.

-- Tampa Bay's pass rush has been most successful on first-down plays

Here's a look at how the Bucs' sacks this year have occurred by down.  Listed are the number of plays on each down, the number of sacks among those plays and the percentage of plays that ended in a sack:

Down

Plays

Sacks

Sack %

1st

196

8

4.1%

2nd

153

5

3.3%

3rd

92

4

4.3%


At first glance, you may interpret that chart as saying the Buccaneers' pass rush has been at its best on third down, since the percentage of plays that ended in sacks is just a big higher on those plays than on first down.  However, you must also remember that there is a higher percentage of plays that are passes when you get to third down.  The Buccaneers have run the ball on 47.4% of their first-down plays, on 37.9% of their second-down plays and on 39.4% of their third-down plays.

That's actually less of a difference in passing percentage than one would expect between first and third downs, as Buccaneer opponents have chosen to throw more on first down and run more on third down than the league averages.  Still, the above chart looks different when one only includes passing plays in the second column:

Down

Pass Plays

Sacks

Sack %

1st

103

8

7.8%

2nd

95

5

5.3%

3rd

66

4

6.1%


So far, Tampa Bay's pass rush has been most effective on first downs this season, which is a bit surprising.  Should it pick up on third down in the second half of the season, the Bucs are likely to shoot well past that season-ending projection of 39 sacks.

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2. Home Kickin'

Punter Michael Koenen continues to be a two-pronged field-position weapon for the Buccaneers, handling the team's kickoffs as well as the punts.  And handling them well, as he has done throughout his career.  This season, Koenen has produced 17 touchbacks in his 25 "adjusted kickoffs," which do not include onside kicks or kickoffs at the end of a half (unless the kickoff is returned for a touchdown).  That 68% touchback mark is 10th-best in the NFL.

Over the course of the three seasons (2011-13) since Koenen came to the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent, he has produced a better touchback percentage than every other kicker in the NFL except Denver's Matt Prater.  Here's the top five in the league in that span:

1. Matt Prater, DEN…69.6%
2. Michael Koenen, TB…64.7%
3. Billy Cundiff, BAL/WAS/NYJ…62.9%
4. Justin Tucker, BAL*…62.0%
5. Thomas Morstead, NO…61.5%

(* Tucker entered the NFL in 2012.)

Now, astute readers will probably note that Prater, playing for Denver, gets to kick off in the thin air of a mile-high altitude in half of his games, which certainly helps his cause.  And that's what's interesting about Koenen's prowess on kickoffs: He's been particularly good at home, without any particular advantage beyond generally nice weather.  In fact, take a look at the same list, but only including home games:

1. Matt Prater, DEN…89.5%
2. Greg Zuerlein, STL…74.5%
3. Michael Koenen, TB…68.1%
4. Thomas Morstead, NO…66.9%
5. Pat McAfee, IND…66.0%

Koenen is the only player on that list who does not kick in either a dome or a high-altitude stadium.  On the road touchback list, which is led by Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski at 65.0%, Prater drops to 19th (45.6%), Zuerlein drops to 18th (46.3%), Morstead drops to 11th (54.8%) and McAfee drops to 12th (53.8%).  Koenen drops out of the top five, as well – and that's a bit counter-intuitive given that he gets at least two chances to kick in a dome on the road every season – but only to seventh.  His touchback percentage on the road is still a very healthy 61.0%.

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3. Up the Gut

Tampa Bay's rushing attack ranks 21st in the NFL this season with 93.6 yards per game, which is a bit of a disappointment given last year's ranking of 15th behind Doug Martin's fabulous rookie season.  Most notably, the Bucs' yards-per-carry is down from an excellent 4.4 last year to 3.8 this year, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Of course, the recent loss of Martin to a shoulder injury hasn't helped, nor has the shuffling on the interior line caused by guard Carl Nicks' ongoing struggle with a foot ailment.  In addition, right guard Davin Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has admitted that he's not yet fully back to his usual standard of play after returning from last year's season-ending knee injury.

Mike James has inherited the starting tailback role from Martin during the latter's absence, which may or may not last for the rest of the season.  He has also inherited the running-game playbook, which, according to Football Outsiders, has had a bit more success in a couple of specific directions.

The FO web site breaks each team's collection of runs down into plays that head into one of five directions: around left end, over left tackle, up the middle, over right tackle or around right end.  According to that chart, the Buccaneers have had their best success when either running around left end or right up the middle.

FO uses their own stat called Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) to evaluate and compare the teams' rushing attacks.  You can read the methodology behind ALY here, but the important things to know are that, 1) they have been normalized so that the yards per carry resembles a typical yards-per-carry mark on a NFL team stat sheet and, 2) Higher is better.  Here are the five directions of running plays Football Outsiders charts, ranked in the order they have succeeded for the Buccaneers:

Direction

ALY

NFL Rank

Left End

3.95

15th

Mid/Guard

3.88

15th

Right Tackle

3.58

21st

Left Tackle

3.06

26th

Right End

2.60

29th


By the way, the Buccaneers' play selection when it comes to the running game and which direction to send the ballcarrier has been almost exactly identical to the league average.  Here are the five directions of runs again, with the percentage of the Bucs' total running plays that each one accounts for and the NFL average in each category:

Direction

Bucs

NFL Avg.

Left End

11%

11%

Mid/Guard

54%

54%

Right Tackle

11%

13%

Left Tackle

13%

13%

Right End

11%

9%


Other than a slight difference between whether the Bucs run it around the end or over the tackle when they head to the right side, the team's play-calling matches up with the NFL average at every spot.

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