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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Working to Correct Slow Starts, Third-Down Struggles

The Buccaneers are 2-1 and have fielded a stifling defense, but to continue winning Head Coach Todd Bowles knows the team has to execute better on third downs on offense and start faster in that regard on defense

Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored the second most points in the league in part because it could sustain drives by surviving third downs. The Buccaneers' 47.1% conversion rate on third downs was the best in franchise history and second in the league in 2021 only to Kansas City's 52.2%.

For reasons both obvious and unavoidable, the Buccaneers' offense is off to a slow start in 2022, even with Tom Brady returning for a third season. Rampant injuries to the receiving corps and offensive line and some additional personnel turnover – Ali Marpet and Rob Gronkowski are enjoying retirement, for instance – have forced Brady and the Bucs to adjust to what is, at least for now, a new reality. And despite the struggles, the Buccaneers are 2-1 and were a two-point conversion away from sending Sunday's loss to Green Bay into overtime.

Of all the numbers on offense that look different than last year's output, perhaps the most stark is the Buccaneers' third-down conversion rate. At 28.6%, the Bucs' third-down offense is operating around 60% of what it was capable of in 2021. Head Coach Todd Bowles and his team are well aware of this issue and know that it can hold them back from their season goals if they don't get it corrected.

"Yeah, [it's] just execution," said Bowles after the Bucs went two for 11 on third down tries in the 14-12 loss to Green Bay. "We're not on the same page. We've got to get on the same page there and we've definitely got to get better at it if we want to win more games."

The Buccaneers scored a field goal on their opening drive on Sunday but still went 0-for-2 on third downs on that possession. It took an impressive diving catch by Cole Beasley on his first target as a Buccaneer to convert a fourth-and-one from the Green Bay 42, and the drive later stalled outside the red zone due to a third-down sack. The play just before Beasley's catch was a run for no yards by Leonard Fournette on third-and-one. That combination of results might turn one's attention to the offensive line and especially to rookie left guard Luke Goedeke, second-year center Robert Hainsey and first-year left tackle Brandon Walton, filling in for an injured Donovan Smith. All three are essentially seeing their first NFL action, but Bowles said the young starters on the line are not the problem.

"I'm not going to sit here and blame it on the rookies," said Bowles. "They're playing good football. They're making a few mistakes but they're not to blame for everything that's going on on offense. It's the offense as a total. We've just got to get better at running our plays and executing overall, young guys and older guys, coaches, everybody."

Overall, there's little to complain about regarding the Bucs' third-down work on defense, which has actually improved since last season. The Bucs finished 2021 ranked 12th in that category, allowing a conversion rate of 38.5%. So far in 2022 they've allowed a 30.2% success rate on third downs to rank sixth in the NFL. The only issue is that it has generally taken the Bucs' defense a little while in each game to get into lock-down mode.

The Packers scored touchdowns on their first two possessions Sunday, which would prove to be their only points, and just enough. The Bucs also gave up first-drive field goals in games at Dallas and New Orleans before clamping down almost completely in those instances as well. The Bucs' defense has only allowed seven second-half points so far, and none in the third quarter.

In the loss to Green Bay, the Bucs' defense allowed Aaron Rodgers and company to convert five consecutive third downs to start the game, which sustained those two touchdown drives. The Packers then succeeded on just one of their next 10 third-down tries.

"Well, two of them were busted coverages where we could have gotten off the field [and] we didn't get off the field," said Bowles of those first five conversions. "The second half, everybody settled down and honed in and they played good football."

Obviously, the Bucs' defense has demonstrated that it can be stifling on third downs for long stretches of games. And it was good enough overall to help the team to a 2-0 start despite the fact that the offense has yet to surpass 20 points in game. While the Buccaneers try to get healthier on offense and carve out a productive identity, the defense can potentially get even better if it can avoid slow starts on third downs.

"It's not a lack of discipline or effort," said Bowles. "We've just got to be smart and hone in on our fundamentals. Sometimes our eyes are in the wrong place and [we're] trying to do too much and trying to see things, and by the time we settle down they've gone down the field. We've talked about that, we're working on that and we'll get better at that."

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