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One Buc Mailbag: The Run-Down

Posted Nov 14, 2017

Does the Bucs' offense need to learn something from its recent results on first-and-10 running plays? That and more in the Week 11 mailbag

For most NFL teams, in most in-season weeks, Tuesday is the player's day off. It's a chance to rest, regroup and – win or lose the previous weekend – turn the page to the next opponent.

It's also a perfect time for us to discuss the hottest topics surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And for that reason, the One Buc Mailbag is back! Every Tuesday, I'll be fielding a handful of questions from the fans, but you can send them in all throughout the week. The easiest way is to hit me up on Twitter (@ScottSBucs, using #BucsMailbag), but if 280 characters aren't quite enough to get your point across, you can also send an email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

This week, we discuss running the ball on first-and-10, the Bucs' chances to run the table and Cameron Brate's shot at the Pro Bowl. Let's get to it.

1. Learning a Lesson?


I decided to run with this one even though it hurts to get chastised by Mr. Snuffleupagus. I remember him being a lot nicer when I was a kid.

I included the tweet to which this one was a response because before we get to the larger point – whether or not the Bucs are futilely and ineffectively running on every first-and-10 – I wanted to point out that the specific premise here is wrong. My tweet referred to the three straight third downs that Fitzpatrick converted on a first-quarter scoring drive and the response indication that the Bucs would continue to run on first-and-10 despite that. Problem is, the Buccaneers' five first-and-10 runs on that drive went for 3, 1, 7, 4 and 4. The Bucs were converting those third downs in no small part because an effective running game was making them more manageable!

(And no, I'm not ignoring the subsequent first-and-15 run that went for one yard at the end of that drive. That was unfortunate, but it doesn't fit into the premise of the question.)

But I'd be willing to bet that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually responded to the original tweet well after that first drive. To be honest, the Buccaneers' rushing attack, especially on first down, did bog down badly in the second half. I remember it well and admit to feeling the same sort of frustration. However, even with that said, I still believe the complaint is off-base. I'll explain, but allow me to list all of the Bucs' first-and-10 plays in the game so the following discussion can have some context.

I'm going to include two first-and-10 plays that the Bucs ran but had called back due to penalty, but not the one instance of a false start, because no play was actually run on that one. I am also not counting Ryan Fitzpatrick's kneel-down to end the game because, come on! That's not fair. So we end up with 26 plays to examine.

(First Quarter)

1. Run. Doug Martin for 7.

2. Run. Martin for 3.

3. Run. Martin for 1.

4. Run. Martin for 7.

5. Run. Martin for 4.

6. Run. Jacquizz Rodgers for 4.

(Second Quarter)

7. Run. Martin for 1.

8. Pass. Intercepted.

9. Run. Peyton Barber for -1.

(Third Quarter)

10. Pass. Chris Godwin for 16. (On a play-action fake.)

11. Pass. Godwin for 12. (On a play-action fake.)

12. Run. Martin for 0.

13. Run. Martin for 14. (Called back on penalty.)

14. Pass. DeSean Jackson for 8. (Plus penalty adds 15.)

15. Run. Martin for 2.

16. Run. Martin for 1.

17. Pass. Godwin for 20.

18. Run. Barber for -1.

198. Run. Charles Sims for -1.

(Fourth Quarter)

20. Run. Doug Martin for -4.

21. Pass. Incomplete

22. Run. Martin for -2. (Called back on penalty.)

23. Run. Martin for 0.

24. Run. Martin for 5.

25. Run. Martin for 4.

26. Run. Martin for 2.

So the Buccaneers ran on 20 of their 26 first-and-10 plays against the Jets. That's a high percentage – 76.9%. However, that is actually an aberration this year. Overall, the Buccaneers have run on 50.2% of their first-and-10 plays this year, which actually ranks 24th in the league. Chicago leads the league at 63.2%, likely in an effort to protect rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and a trio of first-place teams follow on the list. Jacksonville is at 61.8%, Minnesota at 60.9% and the Rams at 59.9%.

The thing is, I'm almost certain that the Bucs would like to be much higher on that list. In other words, they would like more games like the one on Sunday in which they run on a high percentage of first-and-10. Why do I believe this? Because we have two full seasons of a Dirk Koetter led offense as evidence. In 2015, with Koetter as the offensive coordinator, the Buccaneers ranked third in the league in percentage of first-and-10 running plays. Last year, they ranked fifth. That was only a small drop down the rankings despite the fact that the Buccaneers' efficiency in running on first-and-10 plummeted from the third spot on that list in 2015 to 27th last year.

It's not hard to figure out why the Buccaneers have run quite a bit less on first-and-10 this year. The answer can be found on a series of first-half scoreboards. The Bucs have so often been trailing, and on several occasions by wide margins, in the second half that they couldn't afford to stick to the run. What was the difference on Sunday against the Jets? After the first drive of the second half, the Buccaneers were winning the rest of the way.

Now, how about that first-and-10 efficiency. A successful run on first-and-10 is considered one that gets four or more yards. The league average in that category this year is 41.9%. The Buccaneers are at 36.9%, which is not a positive stat but it's not outrageously off the league average. Take a look at the list above – the  Buccaneers were successful on seven of those 20 first-and-10 runs, which is 35%. So pretty close to what's been happening all year.

That's the part over which I would not argue with good sir Snuffleupagus, and I doubt the Bucs' coaching staff would either. The rushing attack, no matter the down, has not been consistently effective, and it's rarely been explosive. On Sunday against the Jets, it was good enough on two occasions – during the aforementioned field goal drive and on the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that ended in Charles Sims's touchdown catch. The Bucs ran seven times for 43 yards on that drive, including four straight Martin runs that all gained at least four yards and got the ball from the 27 down to the six.

As you can see in the list above, most of the really ineffective runs came in the second half. Strategically, though, I don't have a real problem with all those first-and-10 runs. The coaching staff saw the run work on the game's two most important drives, so I can understand that they thought they could continue to run it successfully. But here's the crucial part – they weren't just trying to pick up yards at that point. They were also trying to run down the clock. And in that regard, the strategy was quite effective. The Jets' offense didn't really move the ball the entire game until the last half of the fourth quarter, and by that point the Bucs had a two-score lead and the clock on their side. The Jets scored once, but ran out of time.

It's nearly impossible to watch a football game that's not going the way you like and not find yourself questioning the play-calling. We all do it. That said, I try to do it as little as possible because I think a lot of times we're confusing poor play-calling with just bad execution. It's not surprising to me that a team that was winning in the second half and had started the game with some effectiveness in the run game would try to lean on it again in the second half. Unfortunately, the Bucs couldn't get it done on the ground in the second half…but, ultimately, the strategy worked and they came away with a win.

2. Believers?

Well, you GOTTA believe. The alternative is just to give up, and what's the point of that?

As for the players, until that playoff carrot is taken away from them, they're going to continue to fight. Watch this week's "Bucs Rewind" and you'll see the postgame locker room scene near the end. Those guys are talking about trying to run the table, although I'm sure the coaches will be telling them all week just to focus on the Miami Dolphins. You have to win one before you can win seven.

However, in order not to sound like irrational dreamers unconnected with reality, we can also look at history for the Bucs and the NFL to get an idea of how difficult a task it would be.

The best second-half run the Bucs have ever had was in 1999, when they won eight of their last nine to finish 11-5 and win the NFC Central. However, that team was 3-4 before its run, so it had a bit more margin for error than the current team. That '99 squad was dominant down the stretch, and yet weirdly lost a 45-0 game at Oakland right in the middle of December. It didn't really set the team back – it went out the next two weeks and easily beat Green Bay and Chicago – but that does highlight that even a team on a roll can have one bad week. Unfortunately, the current Bucs probably can't afford one bad week if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

The other problem is that the NFC standings are awfully top-heavy right now. In their own division, the Buccaneers are four games back of New Orleans with seven to play, and they've already lost to the Saints once. They are also 3.5 games back of Carolina and have lost to the Panthers. Even a great run by the Bucs is going to have to be accompanied by a swoon in both New Orleans and Charlotte for the Bucs to have a shot at the division.

As for the wild card, there are five teams that have already won seven games and another has six. I think it will almost surely take 10 wins to get a spot in the NFC this year, unlike last year when the Bucs were 9-7 and tied for the last playoff spot with Detroit. So, again, virtually no margin for error for the Buccaneers.

Has a team ever won its last eight games of the season? Sure! Since the regular-season schedule expanded to its current length of 16 games, there have been 17 occasions in which an NFL team won (at least) its last eight games of the year. For instance, the 2007 Patriots won eight in a row after…well, winning their first eight, too. That's the thing. Most of the teams that have closed out their seasons on such long streaks were already doing fine before going on that run. Eight had winning records before their season-ending runs of eight or more wins, four were even (including, well, the 0-0 Patriots) and five had losing records. Three of those were the 2-3 Chargers in 2009, the 2-3 Broncos in 2011 and the 3-4 Colts in 2008.

The two teams on the list that you're going to want to turn to for encouragement are the 1993 Houston Oilers and the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs. Those '93 Oilers started out 1-4 and then won 11 straight, while the Chiefs of just two years ago were 1-5 before reeling off 10 straight to finish at 11-5. Of course, that means both teams were better at the nine-game mark than the Bucs are now. The Oilers were 5-4 and the Chiefs were 4-5.

So there's not an exact match for where the Bucs are right now, but there's hope. You've got to cling to that hope as long as it lives.

3. Mr. Smith,

I'm a fan of Cameron Brate, the tight end. Even got a 84 jersey and I'm trying to play tight end on my high school team. I know he got off to a really good start to the season. Do you think Cameron has any chance of making the Pro Bowl, and have the Bucs ever had a tight end in the Pro Bowl before? Does it hurt him that Jameis Winston is out? Thanks for answering my question if you do. Go Bucs!

Sincerely,

Will Terrell (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

If Cam can get back on the kind of per-game pace he was setting in October, he would certainly seem to have a chance. However, there is going to be some pretty stiff competition.

In the Bucs' five October games, Brate scored three touchdowns and averaged five catches and 70 yards per game. That's an 1,100-yard pace over 16 games and most 1,100-yard tight ends are going to find themselves in the Pro Bowl.

However, Brate has just two catches for 19 yards in the last two games, which has obviously changed his end-of-season pace considerably. Remember that the Pro Bowl has now gone back to the AFC-vs.-NFC format, so Brate would be in competition with all the NFC tight ends for two all-star spots, and there are several having very good years. Right now, the Bucs' tight end ranks sixth in the NFC in receptions, fourth in yards and fourth in touchdowns among the ranks at his position. That's awfully good, but maybe just on the outside looking in.

Philadelphia's Zach Ertz leads in all three categories (tied in touchdowns) and would seem like the clear #1 choice. Dallas' Jason Witten is second in catches and has definite name recognition as a 10-time Pro Bowler, though he hasn't gone the last couple years. Seattle's Jimmy Graham is up there and was in the Pro Bowl last year. The Giants' Evan Engram is putting up good numbers but is a rookie, which will hopefully make it tougher on him.

Hopefully, Brate's name has started to gain some traction around the NFL after he tied for the league lead in touchdowns for tight ends last year. Now that Pro Bowl balloting has begun, he could make some headway in the minds of voters with some big games in the next month. It's possible that Jameis Winston's absence is having/will have an effect on Brate's numbers, because it's fair to say those two had a very nice chemistry, especially in the red zone. But maybe that Harvard connection between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brate will serve him the same way. In any case, it's possible Winston may not be out much longer.

A couple numbers that could help Brate if the voters look closely: He's second among NFC tight ends with 24 first downs and he's first in the conference with a first-down percentage of 72.7% of his receptions.