In 2016, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a very good third-down team. They were excellent on defense, leading the NFL with a conversion rate allowed of 34.4%. On offense, the Buccaneers ranked fifth in third-down conversion percentage, at 43.9%, and not only were they strong in that category but they were consistent.
As Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken pointed out last week while the Buccaneers were preparing to play in Minnesota, the team managed to avoid those occasional games in which the offense is suddenly inept on third down. The Buccaneers only had four games in which they converted more than half of their third-down tries in 2016 but they also never had a worse single-game mark than 30.8%. The 2017 season began with the Buccaneers converting 53.3% of the time to keep that streak intact. By way of contrast, Tampa Bay's offense had 20 games over the previous three seasons in which it was held to 30% or less.
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As if on cue, the Buccaneers' offense struggled mightily on third down in Minnesota last Sunday, moving the chains just one time in six attempts. That's a low number of attempts, in part because when Jameis Winston and company were moving the ball well, they were often doing so without ever facing a third down. But when they did have an opportunity to sustain a drive with relatively attractive third-down situations they were unable to do so; the Buccaneers were 0-3 on tries of 1-3 yards and 0-2 on tries of 7-10 yards. The only one the offense converted was a 14-yarder, ironically.
"Obviously, we didn't do as well on third downs, so we didn't have as many opportunities because we had some big plays or we went three-and-out," said Monken. I think we got one or two on penalties. But we've got to do a better job separating at times. Whether it's protection, route, throw, it doesn't matter – we've got to find a way to keep the ball on the field. There's two ways you score: hitting explosive plays and not getting yourself in third downs, or you've got to convert on third downs to keep the drive going. That's just the way it is."
Overall, the Buccaneers have a 42.9% third-down success rate this year, which is almost identical to what they did last year. And the offense has shown plenty of signs of life, particularly with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Cam Brate all finding the end zone already. Jameis Winston has improved both his completion percentage (61.4% to 65.7%) and his yards per attempt (7.21 to 7.60) from a year ago, which is an impressive dual feat. Rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin are slowly being worked into the mix. The offensive line has given Winston reasonably good protection.
But this is an offense that expects to be explosive, and that has not consistently been the case yet. The caveat, of course, is that the Bucs' season is only two games old and the season started in rather unusual fashion thanks to Hurricane Irma. It's fair to say that the group has not yet found its rhythm.
"Yeah, I think that's the NFL with the majority of the teams," said Monken. "I think you find when you're going against really good people, your margin for error is small. I will say this: Neither game felt like we couldn't move it or we couldn't score. I never felt that. I never felt like, 'Wow, we are out-manned.' I felt like, 'Boy, we've got good players. We could turn this around.'
"Really, when we got the ball back and we were across midfield [in Minnesota], I thought, 'We are going to go score here.' That's a great feeling to have. Obviously, we've got to find a way to finish drives, run the ball better, score touchdowns in the red zone, but I didn't feel at any one given time that boy we were overmatched."
When the Buccaneers do find their offensive rhythm, it won't be because one particular player gets in a groove. The team made an effort to give Winston a deep and impressive array of targets during the offseason and he plans to continue spreading the ball around.
"Whoever is open has to get the ball," said Winston. "That's why we emphasize five full-speed routes on every single play. I think we do a great job here, especially with Coach Koetter the way he calls, everyone touches the ball. It's not just one guy getting most of the catches over and over and over again, unless you're Mike Evans. He has a higher catch percentage than everyone else, but everyone else [gets] the ball. Like I say all the time, I don't discriminate at all. I enjoy spreading the ball around. Coach Koetter does an amazing job getting the ball in everyone's hands."
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Giants.
- The Buccaneers hoped to utilize a deep defensive-end rotation in 2017 and expected young pass-rushers Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith to be important parts of that effort. And those hopes remain, but Spence and Smith have had some tribulations along the way.
The Buccaneers had the same plan heading into 2016, and Smith was one of the team's known commodities on the edge, having posted 13.5 sacks in 27 games over the previous two years. However, Smith sustained a season-ending knee injury after logging just one defensive snap in Week One and was lost to injured reserve. He spent all of this past offseason coming back from that misfortune, only to suffer a setback on the eve of training camp. Smith still made the 53-man roster but was inactive for the first game of the year. If he was ready to return for the second game, it became a moot point because the flu bug that swept through the locker room took him out.
Smith is back on the practice field as a full participant this week, so perhaps he's close to playing in his first game in nearly 13 months.
"It's been a long road back for Jacquies," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "When you see these guys and they are in there doing their rehab day after day after day after day, surgery and then he starts to make it back and he gets banned from the building because he's got the flu – you feel for these guys and that's the life of an injured player. I think if you ask any injured player they feel like they're not part of it and they're just waiting to get back. Every player I've ever been around, it's the same thing. It's been a long road back for Jack and hopefully at some point he gets to get back out there. When he was at his best, he was a pretty darn good pass rusher."
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Spence didn't miss a game during a promising rookie season, but only because he fought through his own difficult situation. The second-round draft pick suffered a shoulder injury in the first month that raised the specter of injured reserve, but he chose to continue playing while wearing a harness that restricted his movement. Spence got the Bucs' first sack in 2017, causing a fumble that the Bucs recovered, but then he suffered another shoulder injury in Minnesota. The harness is back, but Spence too is a full participant in practice this week. He's going to fight through it again.
"He likes to play football," said Koetter. "That's what you want when you draft guys. That's what you are trying to get – a team football of guys that love to play football. Ultimately, these guys are all sore and beat up every week. You want guys that want to go back out there and compete and want to play. Noah has proven that."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
- Smith and Spence getting full reps on Thursday was the same as the day before. In fact, there were no changes to the Bucs'official injury reporton the second day of preparations for the New York Giants.
That's not all good news. Three key Buccaneer defenders – linebackers Lavonte David (ankle) and Kwon Alexander (hamstring) and safety T.J. Ward (hip) – all sat out another day, while defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) and defensive end Robert Ayers (knee) remain limited. Tampa Bay will have to be armed with several contingency plans on defense for Sunday, particularly if both David and Alexander are out. Rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith would remain in the middle if Alexander is unavailable, while the outside spots would be occupied by some combination of Adarius Glanton, Devante Bond and Cameron Lynch.
If both Alexander and David are out, the defensive play-calling duties would fall to Beckwith in just his third NFL game. He's already had a few cracks at that job during the first two weeks when his teammates went down. Koetter is confident the young defender can handle the responsibility.
"Let's hope he doesn't have to do it every week, but he did have to do it at the end of the game last week and he handled it fine," said Koetter. "I would say nothing really surprises me about Kendell Beckwith at this point – the physical part that he did, the mental part of learning multiple positions and he has been asked to do a little bit more every week so far, not only in training camp and preseason, but through our first two games. I would say nothing really surprises me about that."