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Mid-Range Passing Proficiency Producing First Downs

Posted Dec 15, 2017

Data Crunch: No team in the NFL completes more passes in the 15 to 19-yard range in the Buccaneers, which has helped put the team on a franchise-record pace for first downs

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2017 offense has produced 282 first downs through 13 games, an average of 21.7 first downs per game that, if maintained, would lead to a final season total of 347. The franchise's single-season record in that category, set in 1984, is 344.

That 1984 campaign is something of an anomaly, given that the next four seasons on the Buccaneers' list of most first downs all occurred within the last five years. The NFL as a whole has seen a steady rise in offensive numbers across the board in the three-plus decades since 1984, and Tampa Bay's offensive team records are being rewritten on a nearly annual basis. The reason for the '84 anomaly is pretty easy to pinpoint: the whole offense ran through workhorse running back James Wilder, who kept the chains moving but in a grinding manner. Wilder set a then-NFL record with 407 carries and also caught a team-high 85 passes, but his per-touch averages were 3.8 yards on runs and 8.1 yards on receptions.

However, even if the 2017 season is operating in a much more offense-friendly environment, the Buccaneers' first-down totals are still noteworthy, as they rank fourth in the NFL. And unlike Wilder's '84 squad, the current Buccaneers are relying on their passing game to move the chains. Of all the teams in the top 10 of the NFL's first-down rankings, Tampa Bay has had the highest percentage of its chain-movers occur through  the air.

First Downs Pass
Team Total Rush Pass Pen. Pct.
New England 312 79 193 40 61.9
Philadelphia 292 94 166 32 56.9
Pittsburgh 287 76 182 29 63.4
Tampa Bay 282 62 197 23 69.9
Minnesota 280 80 170 30 60.7
New Orleans 276 91 169 16 61.2
Houston 276 72 161 43 58.3
Atlanta 271 81 163 27 60.2
L.A. Chargers 270 62 180 28 66.7
Jacksonville 262 83 149 30 56.9

The Buccaneers have produced a high number of first downs despite being almost exactly league-average in converting third downs. Tampa Bay ranks 16th on that chart with a conversion rate of 39.0%; the NFL average is 38.9%. One reason for this disparity is that the Buccaneers have been good at moving the chains before getting to third down. They rank seventh in the NFL with a second-down conversion rate of 34.2%.

However, there are some oddities even within those second-down numbers. For some reason, the Buccaneers have been better – as compared to the rest of the NFL – on more difficult second downs. In fact, Tampa Bay's offense has been the best in the league at producing first downs on second-down plays requiring 10 or more yards.

It's not a complete upward progression from second-and-one to second-and-10+, but you can see Tampa Bay's numbers improve (as relative to the NFL) as the yardage needed increases.

Yards Needed Pct. NFL Rank
1 66.7% 16t
2-3 37.5% 32
4-5 50.0% 4t
6-9 32.6% 9
10+ 24.8% 1

Those numbers suggest a running game that struggles with consistency and a passing attack that is capable of hitting intermediate-range passes with some regularity. And, indeed, Tampa Bay ranks 26th in rushing yards per game and 27th in yards per carry but is third in the NFL in average yards at the point of reception (7.6).

The Buccaneers have not hit a high number of deep passes this year. Tampa Bay is tied for 20th in the NFL with 37 completions of 20 or more yards, and the average distance of those 37 passes is 27.5 yards. That's the third-lowest average in the NFL. However, the Buccaneers are have been very good at hitting passes of 15 to 19 yards. In fact, no team in the NFL can match Tampa Bay's passing attack in that category.

The Buccaneers have 53 completions that gained between 15 and 19 yards, most in the NFL. Those 53 completions have resulted in 50 first downs, which is also the most in the NFL on passes of that length. Tampa Bay is the only team with more than 50 such plays and the list falls off steeply. The Buccaneers have about 66% more completions in the 15 to 19-yard range as the team ranked 10th. Here are the top 10 NFL teams in completions of 15-19 yards:

15-19 Resulting
Team Yd. Recs. 1st Downs
Tampa Bay 53 50
New England 48 45
Arizona 46 41
L.A. Chargers 40 39
Atlanta 37 37
Detroit 37 37
Pittsburgh 36 35
Jacksonville 35 35
Cincinnati 35 34
Chicago 32 30

The 2017 Buccaneers can move the football, particularly through the air. Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the NFL in net passing yards, with an average of 262.0 per game. Those yards have translated into a lot of first downs but, unfortunately, not as many points as the team would like. Of the teams ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in first downs, Tampa Bay is the only one that does not also rank among the league's top half in scoring.

NFL Rank:
Team 1st Downs Yds/Gm. Pts./Game
New England 312 2nd 4th
Philadelphia 292 3rd 1st
Pittsburgh 287 4th 8th
Tampa Bay 282 12th t-21st
Minnesota 280 7th 13th
New Orleans 276 1st 3rd
Houston 276 13th 12th
Atlanta 271 9th 16th
L.A. Chargers 270 5th 15th
Jacksonville 262 11th t-6th

The Buccaneers may set a new team single-season record for first downs in 2017. They've racked them up at a high rate in large part due to their proficiency on mid-range passes. The team has not achieved the run-pass balance it has sought, however, and that has likely contributed to that high number of first downs not translating to more points.