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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' Improvement on Third Downs a Big Factor in Week 9 Win

Tampa Bay's defense gave Tom Brady a chance to engineer another incredible comeback by clamping down on third downs and the offense didn't stall in the second half because it was able to convert on that critical down

In 2021, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers outscored their opponents by an average of 9.3 points per game, ranking fourth in the NFL in that category. They had the league's best passing attack while ranking second in both total yards and total points. The Buccaneers defense allowed the fifth fewest points in the league. That all added up to a 13-4 regular-season record that tied for the best in the NFL.

One major factor in that success on both both sides of the ball was good work on third downs. The 2021 Buccaneers converted 47.1% of their third downs on offense while allowing a conversion rate of 38.5% on defense. Those marks ranked second and 12th in those categories, respectively.

There are many intertwined reasons why the 2022 Buccaneers got off to a 3-5 start but third-down success on both sides of the ball has escaped them for much of this season. In recent losses, both the offense and defense have had trouble maintaining momentum after halftime, and last Wednesday, Head Coach Todd Bowles was asked to dissect that situation.

"It's been third downs on both sides," he said. "We're not converting no matter whether it's third-and-1 or third-and-long [and] we're not getting them off the field, whether it's missed tackles or a busted assignment or otherwise. We're not getting off the field in the second half."

The combination of the Bucs' offensive and defensive third-down numbers in 2021 gave them a +8.6% differential in that category. Through the first eight games of this season, that differential was -7.5%, the fifth-worst mark in the league. The offense was converting 34.6% of the time while the defense was allowing a success rate of 42.1%. In contrast, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Kansas City – three teams with a combined record of 17-8, were all in positive double-digit differentials.

The Buccaneers knew situational football was hurting them badly, and they had a bit of extra time to self-scout after their Thursday night loss to the Ravens. When they came back in Week Nine to play the Rams, they seemed to have found some answers, for one game at least.

"I mean, there's a lot of things we want to try to improve and step back and do," said Bowles after the Bucs' stopped their skid with a 16-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. "We got better defensively on third-down, especially third-and-long – that's been an Achilles heel the last couple of weeks. Red zone defense got a little bit better, we moved the ball a little better on offense – just small things we have to continue to work at."

Indeed, the Buccaneers' third-down differential in Sunday's win 16.2%. Their offense was good on nine of 21 tries (42.9%) while the defense held the Rams to four conversions in 15 attempts (26.7%). The defense consistently got off the field quickly, with eight three-and-outs, and importantly three of those came on the Rams first three drives of the fourth quarter. The Bucs' defense kept giving Tom Brady and company extra chances, and while the offense continued to have trouble punching the ball into the end zone, those opportunities were eventually enough to lead to the comeback, last-second win.

"That was big," said Bowles. "It gave us some time on the clock and not giving [the Rams] a first down, so giving [the offense] 44 seconds turned out to be more than enough. Just to give them the ball back and give them a chance was big. So, the last two drives – them getting off the field helped out a lot."

And Tampa Bay's offense didn't shrivel after halftime. The Bucs were 4-10 on third downs before the intermission and five of 11 afterward. They had 163 yards in the first half and 160 after. Those are not overwhelming numbers compared to what the team had become accustomed to in recent seasons, but it was 117 more yards than the Rams produced.

The Buccaneers didn't exactly come blazing out of their mini-bye. They needed another late-game Brady miracle to pull out the win and were held to 20 or fewer points for the sixth time in nine outings. But the defense – with some key contributors returning from injuries – looked more like the stifling one the team fielded during a 2-1 start, and the offense corrected some of its issues on third downs. There are still areas that need improvement, such as red zone production and run-game efficiency, but Sunday's win was a step in the right direction if the Bucs can maintain their improved play on third downs.

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