1. Road Block
As a team, the Buccaneers can flaunt – figuratively speaking – a set of six-pack abs. That is, this crew is strong in the gut.
On several occasions last year (here for instance), as Tampa Bay's run defense was developing into the best in the NFL, we called your attention to this excellent chart on FootballOutsiders.com breaking down the play of each team's defensive line. Specifically, the chart (scroll down to the second one on the page) indicates how opposing offenses fare against each defense as they try to run the ball in one of five directions: at left end, at left tackle, at mid/guard, at right tackle and at right end.
Those directional designations are from the offense's perspective and begin with runs wide to the outside. That is, a run to "left end" actually refers to one that is directed towards the right side of the opposing defense. Those and runs at left tackle would commonly be aimed at the defense's right defensive end, or between the end and the defensive tackle. Flip it for the runs at right end and right tackle and, of course, mid/guard are runs right up the gut.
Last year, the Bucs were excellent in all of these areas but particularly stout against the runs directed at right and left tackle. That was an indication of good play by the team's defensive ends on both sides. This year, once again, the Buccaneers' numbers are very good across the board, at least through four games. However, those numbers are distributed a little bit differently in 2013. Good work, Pro Bowl defensive tackle
Opponents trying to run the ball up the middle against the Bucs are averaging 3.25 in a statistic Football Outsiders call "ALY," or Adjusted Line Yards. You can read an explanation here, but just know that the league average is 4.25. The Bucs' figure puts them at third among the NFL's 32 teams, behind only Denver (2.52) and Houston (2.79).
2. Too Much YAC-ing
The Buccaneers face the NFL's second-ranked offense this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and they hope to keep as many of Michael Vick's (or perhaps Nick Foles') passes from finding their targets. Some of those throws will be completed, however, and when that happens, the team that controls the YAC may gain the upper hand in the game.
YAC, of course, stands for "yards after catch." Many gains in the passing game come in two parts – the amount of yardage the ball travels from the quarterback to the pass-catcher, and the extra amount of yardage said pass-catcher then picks up on his own. Statspass just happens to break every catch down into those two parts, and thus we can determine which offenses have been best at gaining extra yards after the catch, and which defenses have been best at preventing this.
Know this: Philadelphia is very, very good after the catch, with wide receiver DeSean Jackson personally providing a good amount of YAC. In fact, the Eagles' offense as a whole is the best in the NFL in covering ground after the catch, at least on a per-catch basis. On average, every Eagles' reception includes 7.4 yards gained after the catch. Second in the NFL is Detroit at 7.1, and it drops all the way to 6.5 for the Packers in third place and the Broncos in fourth. Philly is "only" ninth in overall YAC, with 662 yards after the catch on the season, but that has a lot to do with the Eagles also leading the league in rushing and thus not needing to throw it as often. Denver, Atlanta and Detroit are the top three teams in overall YAC.
This would have been very bad news for the 2012 Buccaneers. That team, which struggled in pass defense in general, was 26th in the NFL in holding down YAC, giving up an average of 5.8 yards after the catch. Things are better in 2013, however, as the Bucs have improved that mark by a half-yard, to 5.3, and are now ranked a respectable 15th. The team is just a hair away from being in the top 10 in that category, as all the teams ranked eighth to 14th are in the 5.0-5.3 range.
Of course, that number could go up for the Buccaneers after they face the Eagles' explosive offense on Sunday. Or, perhaps, Eagles' league-leading YAC will go down after facing Tampa Bay's rapidly improving defense.
3. In the Red
The Buccaneers are 0-4 in 2013 but have held a fourth-quarter lead in three of those four games before losing on last-minute field goals. Obviously, Tampa Bay has played a string of close games, and part of the reason the team has been in position to win three of them has been its good work inside the red zone.
The Bucs have been particularly good on defense in the red zone, allowing a touchdown rate of 28.6% on drives that penetrate their 20-yard line, good for second in the league behind Kansas City (25.0%). However, the offense ranks in the league's upper half, as well, coming in 12th with a touchdown rate of 57.1%. The Buccaneers are one of only two teams to rank in the 12 both offensively and defensively in the red zone through the first five weeks of the season. The Chicago Bears are tied for fifth on offense and tied for third on defense.
The Bucs have been especially good, on both sides of the ball, when the action gets close to the end zone. Tampa Bay's offense has scored a touchdown on 100% of its drives that have reached a first-and-goal this season; the defense, however, has allowed only 33% of such drives to find the end zone. The problem for the Buccaneers is not getting into enough of those goal-to-go situations on offense so far. That 100% success rate comes on just two drives, and they haven't reached a goal-to-go in either of the last two games.