Every NFL coach would like his team to win every single snap in a game, but that's obviously not going to happen. Some plays are more important than others, though, and Bruce Arians harps on his players to dial it up in two particular circumstances that matter most in determining the outcome of any given contest.
"We talk a lot about third down and red zone, being able to get off the field and hold teams to field goal opportunities," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach.
How important were those two factors in the Tampa Bay's 13-12 win over Cleveland on Friday night? Arians called it "huge" that the Browns were held to two of 14 on third downs and did not turn any of their three red zone incursions into touchdowns.
And if the Bucs' defense can keep performing at a high level in those two areas, it would also be a huge improvement over last season, when problems in both of those categories contributed to an average of 29 points allowed per contest. The 2018 Buccaneers gave up a 40.3% third-down success rate and a 77.6% touchdown efficiency in the red zone; that first number ranked 22nd in the league while the second was dead last.
The stinginess of Tampa Bay's defense on "the money down" and near its own end zone wasn't a new development in Week Three of the preseason. Through three contests the Bucs are giving up a 23.8% conversion rate on third down and a 40.0% touchdown efficiency in the red zone, ranking fourth and sixth in those categories so far. It seems obvious that the new system under Todd Bowles is making a difference, particularly because the players have thoroughly embraced it and have caught on quickly.
"Defensively, I think the guys have really bought into the system," said Arians. "They're playing at a real high level and they're playing very fast."
Arians could see those third-down and red zone numbers immediately after the game on Friday, along with some of the other anemic totals the Bucs' defense allowed the Browns' offense: 141 total yards, 12 first downs, 2.6 yards per play, 2.8 yards per rush. While the Bucs' defense was able to get Cleveland off the field on five or fewer plays on nine of 12 possessions, Tampa Bay's offense converted on nine of 19 third downs and thus had a 73-54 edge in snaps and a 12-minute advantage in time of possession.
But Arians felt even better about the defensive performance after consuming the game tape on Saturday morning. He praised the unit for how well it worked together but did not a few players who had especially good nights, including safety Jordan Whitehead, cornerbacks M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean and defensive lineman Will Gholston.
"That's the best communication we've had on the field, on the sidelines," said Arians. "I thought our defense was outstanding. Singling out Whitehead; Stewart had a hell of a game; I thought Will Gholston had a good game; all the corners. Defensively, I thought it was good – two out of [14 on] third down and zeroes in the red zone.
"All of our corners played outstanding and Carlton had a heck of a ballgame. I really wish Landry and Beckham would have played just to test them, but Carlton and especially Jamel Dean locked his guy down."
Whitehead ended the first half with an interception off Baker Mayfield, one of his two passes defensed to go with four tackles. Stewart and Davis also knocked away passes and Dean played stifling coverage. Gholston batted down a pass on third down to kill one drive. In addition to those standouts, defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches continued to solidify his chances of making the 53-man roster with a pair of sacks.
"Oh, he's solid," said Arians of the player his teammates call 'Nacho.' "He's done a great job of interior pass-rush. He's quick, he's got a high motor and he plays the run really well."
Even Cleveland's scoring drives were short, because other than those third-down numbers Tampa Bay's offense wasn't particularly prolific either (265 total yards), especially in the first half, and the punting game was subpar on Friday evening. The Browns thus had an average drive start of its own 38-yard line and their four field goal drives covered 18, 18, 37 and 31 yards, respectively, with the 37-yarder including 20 penalty yards.
Arians could see the Bucs' defensive dominance on the stats page after the game, but he didn't need it to know that they had won in the two areas that mean the most to him.
"So they won statistically and did a good job with that field position, limiting their points," he said.