The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' passing attack averaged 7.2 yards per attempt in 2016, Jameis Winston's second year at the helm. That was pretty good; that is to say, it was perfectly league average, median and mean. The overall NFL yards-per-pass-attempt that season was 7.2, and the Buccaneers ranked 15th among the 32 teams in that category.
There was room for improvement, and Winston and the Buccaneers (with some input from Ryan Fitzpatrick, too) made it. Tampa Bay's passing attack produced 7.9 yards per attempt in 2017, good enough for fourth in the NFL and quite a bit better than the league average of 7.1. Surprisingly, the Buccaneers improved significantly in that category again in 2018, producing a robust 8.6 yards per pass attempt that would have comfortably led the NFL the year before but in this case was second to Kansas City's 8.8.
There probably isn't much more room for improvement in that category in 2019, but simply staying in the same neighborhood would be a victory, and an example of an area in which the team has been able to make a lasting positive difference.
Hopefully, Carmen Vitali, Casey Phillips and I can find a few more areas in which the same process can begin in 2019. As we continue or annual Roundtable Week, today we're going to throw out some areas in which the Buccaneers either struggled or were just average last year, and suggest why that could change this season. And hopefully, if the Bucs prove any of us right, the improvement in 2019 will be part of a lasting change.
This is the fourth of our five Roundtable discussions this week. Here's the schedule:
Monday: Which new addition to the team will have the greatest impact?
Tuesday: What is your bold prediction for the 2019 season?
Wednesday: What will be the most interesting or important position battle in training camp?
Thursday: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2019?
Friday: Who will be the Buccaneers' breakout player in 2019?
We're continuing to rotate the order in which we pick, since we are making a point not to duplicate answers. We're back to where we started on Monday, with Casey going first, Carmen second and me third.
So, you're back in the driver's seat, Casey. Riddle us this: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2019?
Casey Phillips: Turnover Ratio
I don’t tend to believe one stat tells a very complete story. But even I have to admit the 2018 season for the Bucs may have all hinged on the number -18. That was the team's turnover ratio.
It may just be one stat, but of course there are a million factors that went into causing it. And I think enough of those factors will have changed that we could see dramatic improvement in that category almost immediately.
First, Jameis won’t have to miss the beginning of the season and then try to get back into rhythm with his pass-catchers. And he still has a plethora of reliable, steady pass-catchers to go to. Then factor in Bruce Arians' tendency to get running backs involved in the pass game and that adds several safety valves for Jameis if he’s under pressure. And speaking of pressure, I wrote earlier this week about the battle for the right guard spot. I think that position will be improved either from a more prepared Alex Cappa or from new veteran addition Earl Watford, and cut down how often Jameis feels rushed into throws.
As far as the defensive impact on that stat, there may be even more room for improvement. The Bucs were having to play from behind far too often and abandon the original offensive game plan. A Todd Bowles defense comes with the reputation of aggressiveness and blitzing. That can set the tone of the game and allow the offense to play within themselves and not force as much to make up for giving up too many early scores. Plus, we’ve already seen young new additions like Devin White, Mike Edwards and others getting interceptions in camp. That those newcomers are picking up on the scheme fast enough to be making big plays already has to get that coaching staff excited.
Carmen Vitali: Defensive Sacks
Let’s start with the baseline. In 2018, the Buccaneers tallied 38 total sacks on the season, tying them for 19th-most in the league. Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib combined for exactly half of those sacks alone, registering 12.5 and 6.5 respectively. The Bucs will be without the former for an indeterminate amount of time after Pierre-Paul suffered an offseason neck injury – so why do I think the Bucs will see more sacks with their fearless sack leader unavailable?
Because this defense is aggressive.
Where most of the pressure came from the defensive front last year in the Bucs’ 4-3 scheme, this year, you won’t know where the pressure is coming from. Plus, every time there is pressure, it’s a total team effort. If the linebackers are coming down, the D-line is paving the way. If nickels or corners or safeties are coming in, linebackers are helping to backfill coverage zones… with the D-line again leading the way. All of this confusion can make an offense’s collective head spin and therefore, make mistakes – mistakes that allow someone to get through to the quarterback and bring him down.
There’s also the addition of Ndamukong Suh, who can both bring pressure himself or open up lanes for defenders behind him to take advantage. Think of him almost as a defensive fullback in that regard. His presence at the line is menacing and the sheer power he has will command multiple blockers. He should change the defensive dynamic quite a bit. This may count as a bold prediction, but I could see the Bucs ranking top 10 in sacks for 2019. Yep, I said it.
Scott Smith: Rushing Average Differential
Okay, I admittedly might be inventing a new statistic here, but what I'm trying to do is pinpoint two problem areas at once and suggesting that both could be fixed, or at least improved, in 2019.
Simply put, running plays were not a particularly good thing for the Buccaneers in 2018, particularly on an efficiency basis. Tampa Bay's offense ranked 31st in the NFL with its per-carry average of 3.92 yards. Meanwhile, the Bucs' defense surrendered 4.65 yards per carry, ranking 20th in the league. Put those two numbers together and you have opponents gaining nearly three-quarters of a yard more per run than the Bucs were managing on offense. When you run the ball 400 to 450 times in a season, that's going to add up fast.
That's what I mean by "rushing average differential:" how much better or worse a team was at picking up yards per carry than what it allowed. The Bucs tied with Philadelphia for the second-worst mark in that just-concocted stat, at -0.73 yards per tote. Only Arizona, which had a -1.08 differential on its way to three wins and the first pick in the draft, was worse.
Fortunately, there are two ways to make that better. The Bucs clearly need a better run game in 2019, if for no other reason than to add bite to the play-action when Bruce Arians wants to chuck it downfield, and they could get it by way of scheme changes or improved play from the line and the running backs. Or both. There's no guarantee that will happen, but there's a pretty clear path to get there – get better results from the right guard position and squeeze more (hopefully many more) big plays out of second-year back Ronald Jones. Peyton Barber, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry while leading the team in rushing, has room for improvement, too, but Jones should make the bigger leap.
The Bucs might already have the formula for a more stout run defense in 2019, particularly up the middle. Second-year player Vita Vea will hopefully see a lot more playing time and should benefit from his rapid improvement down the stretch last year. And the newly-signed Ndamukong Suh has always been considered a very good run-stopper. Arians said during the Bucs' offseason program that he believes it will be very hard for teams to run between the tackles on the Buccaneers when Vea and Suh are on the field together.
The good news here is the Bucs only need to see major improvement in one of those two categories in order to get back to an even or positive differential. Last year, the overall NFL average was 4.42 yards per carry. Last year only seven teams – the Packers, Chargers, Giants, 49ers, Titans, Ravens and Cowboys – were better than average on both offense and defense. It's not necessarily easy to be good at both, but if the Buccaneers can simply get better in each category they'll reap the benefits in 2019.