- The Buccaneers won the turnover battle on Sunday against the Bengals but, for once, that wasn't enough to get the win
- Tampa Bay committed 13 penalties in the game, which largely wiped out the turnover advantage
- The Bucs' balance between the run and pass on offense was a positive factor, if not enough
Last Friday, in our weekly Football Geekery column, we pointed out that there is plenty of statistical evidence backing up the common coaches' claim that turnovers decide ballgames. Not only is turnover ratio highly correlated with victory – at least in the four decades of Tampa Bay Buccaneers football – but the winning percentage goes up steeply as the ratio gets more lopsided.
Before Sunday's game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals, the Buccaneers as a franchise had won 79.2% of the time when it had a turnover ratio of +2 or better, and lost 91.5% of the time when it had a turnover ratio of -2 or worse. Shockingly, Sunday's game bucked the trend. Tampa Bay took the ball away three times and turned it over just once…and yet lost, 14-13. It very nearly worked out differently; the Bucs appeared to be lined up for a game-winning 38-yard field goal try before a replay review revealed that there were 12 men on the field for the previous snap.
So how did a nearly iron-clad determinant for victory fail to deliver. Obviously, the Buccaneers had to do a thing or two to counter the advantage of their edge in takeaways, and the description of that above scenario provides a hint as to one of them. Below are five statistical explanations for Sunday's game coming down to the wire; it ultimately went in the opponent's favor by a single point, and similarly the Bucs came up short by one in these five competing factors.
5. In the Bengals' favor: Red zone offense.
This was a similar story to a week ago in Chicago, and it served once again to put a damper on what has started to become a routinely good performance by the Buccaneers' defense. Tampa Bay has allowed just over 18 points per game over the past six games as the players have begun to get a much better grasp on the defense imported by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier. In Chicago, the defense was so stingy that it allowed only 204 total yards and only one drive that covered more than 50 yards. Unfortunately, two third-quarter turnovers created instant red zone possessions, and the Bucs couldn't limit the damage to three points on either occasion.
All-Pro DT Gerald McCoy, who had a sack in Chicago and another one on Sunday against the Bengals, said last week that the Bucs' defense has to get stronger in the red zone, no matter how unfavorable the circumstances are.
"The NFL is a tough game and you're going to be put in tough situations," said McCoy. "The greatest defenses were able to hold teams in that situation to three points, so we have to be better in that aspect. After a while it just becomes who wants it more at that time, and we lost that battle twice – can't allow that to happen. In tough times, you've just got to stand up and that's where we have to grow. In situations like that, as a unit, we have to grow and hold them to field goals in those times."
That didn't happen in Chicago or against Cincinnati. The Bears had three drives reach the red zone and all three of them resulted in touchdowns. The Bengals were two for two in the same category. Those five drives have seriously rewritten the Bucs' overall defensive red zone numbers, and not for the better. Through the first 10 games of the season, Tampa Bay was allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 59.4% of their trips inside the 20, which was slightly worse than league average. After those two games, the Bucs' percentage is up to 64.9% on defense. Tampa Bay had been averaging 5.19 points allowed per red zone trip before the last two games; obviously that total has been 7.00 per trip over the last two outings, and it's not hard to see how just two points would have made a big difference on Sunday.
Meanwhile, it has been the opposite story on offense, although the trend dates back a few weeks farther. Through eight games, Tampa Bay's offense had been scoring touchdowns on a respectable 65.0% of its red zone trips. Over the last five, that number has fallen drastically to 27.3%. The Buccaneers had identical lines against Chicago and Cincinnati – three trips, one touchdown and two field goals – and not coincidentally they finished with 13 points both times.
4. In the Bucs' favor: Turnovers.
We gave you the numbers up top, but even without any specific breakdowns or historical context the Buccaneers knew they had to get better in this department. It clearly took a little while for the current roster to become comfortable with Smith's defense, but even as the yardage and point totals started to get markedly better the takeaways were not coming as frequently as expected. Throughout his two decades as a position coach, defensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, Smith has almost always been associated with the best takeaway defenses in the league.
The Bucs have not been that through most of 2014. They had just 12 takeaways through the first nine games of the season and had won the turnover battle just twice. They turned that around in Washington in Game 10, picking off quarterback Robert Griffin III on the first play of the game and eventually finishing with a +2 turnover ratio. That had a lot to do with the Bucs' only lopsided win of the season, a 27-7 decision at FedExField.
After losing the battle in Chicago and seeing that quite directly affect the final outcome, the Buccaneers' defense came out firing again on Sunday, picking off Andy Dalton on the game's first play. That one was by the team's leading interceptor, Johnthan Banks, who took his fourth pick of the year all the way back to the Cincinnati nine-yard line. Later, Brandon Dixon's first career interception killed a Bengals' scoring threat in the Bucs' end zone and Alterraun Verner's pick kept the Bucs' only giveaway, a Josh McCown interception late in the first half, from resulting in points.
Those three takeaways and relatively good ball security on offense kept the Bucs in a nip-and-tuck game until the very end despite the fact that the offense only produced 173 yards before the last two drives of the game. It could have been the winning edge – and usually would be – if not for the competing factors we're discussing here. Also, Buccaneer players would say that even a +2 ratio is not good enough if those takeaways don't result in more points. Tampa Bay scored just three points off its three takeaways, most disappointingly coming away with a field goal after Banks' initial big play.
"We're playing better, but we've got to score on defense," said McCoy. "It was great, we had three takeaways, but one of those we've got to turn into a touchdown."
3. In the Bengals' favor: Penalties.
For the fourth time in 12 games this season, Tampa Bay saw its penalty numbers climb into double digits. On Sunday, it was 13 penalties for 94 yards and, of course, there were plenty of additional lost yards that don't show up in that total. Murphy's overturned big play at the end was the most critical example, but Tampa Bay's second drive of the game very well could have produced points if a 28-yard Doug Martin run was not erased by a procedural penalty on the other side of the field.
A high number of penalties, unlike turnovers, isn't necessarily a death knell for a team's chances of winning. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks famously led the NFL in penalties en route to their Super Bowl championship. For the 2014 Buccaneers, however, it has largely been a matter of timing. Far, far too often their penalties are erasing big plays that they absolutely need to overcome their opponent, or extending drives on defense. That former category was more prevalent on Sunday against the Bengals.
"[We] did some good things defensively, played hard throughout, taking the ball away from them, playing hard right up until [the end] gave us an opportunity to win the football game," said Smith after the game. "But when you make dumb, stupid penalties like that throughout the game it ends up biting you at the end, which it did."
Oniel Cousins was involved in a handful of the penalties, but it's hard to put too much blame on the veteran lineman because he was pressed into a new and unusual role on Sunday. With all three of the team's usual tight ends out due to injury and fullback Jorvorskie Lane landing on injured reserve, the team had to get a little creative with its blocking. Just-promoted rookie tight end Cameron Brate took a lot of the snaps at fullback while Cousins spent much of the day playing tight end. He was, in fact, one of the 12 men on the field for the fateful play at the end, although he was apparently supposed to be there.
"Obviously because of the tight end situation where we were at this week, Oniel played a lot in the game," said McCown. "They had pressured us before in that situation, down and distance, and so we were trying to get a shot down the field while making sure we were protected so we ran [Oniel] on, but we obviously we did not get Robert Herron off. Again, I just have to do a better job of looking up and seeing it and calling out protection and calling out routes. It just can't happen."
McCown's last words were a common refrain in the Bucs' postgame locker room, as there is clearly mounting frustration over the season's run of ill-timed penalties.
"I'm at a loss for words," said Banks. "That's been killing us all year, penalties. We have to be more disciplined as a team. That's been our biggest problem. Today showed exactly why we need to be more disciplined. If we don't make penalties, we can win a game. Sometimes it's playing hard, and sometimes it's a mental thing. We have to be more mentally focused as a team and as a group."
RB Doug Martin ran for 58 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's loss to the Bengals
2. In the Bucs' favor: Offensive balance.
It's fair to look at the Buccaneers' rushing output on Sunday – 75 yards on 25 carries – and proclaim that it was not good enough. In essence, the Bucs lacked those one or two big plays that turns a workmanlike day into a seriously good ground game. The 28-yarder that Martin had called back in the first quarter would have made those stats look a lot different.
That's not to say the Bucs' deserve credit for those 28 yards; as noted above, penalties caused a lot of self-inflicted wounds on Sunday. What is reasonable to claim, however, is that the Buccaneers sought and mostly achieved offensive balance.
Tampa Bay ran 55 plays from scrimmage on Sunday, which is admittedly a low number, but its opponent only ran 58 plays. Thirty of those 55 plays were passes (including sacks) and 25 were runs. The Buccaneers had been quite effective in recent weeks through the air, and the Bengals brought a strong pass defense into Raymond James Stadium, so it was fair to assume that Cincinnati would focus on shutting down the aerial attack. In certain situations, the Bucs had to take what the Bengals were giving, such as Tampa Bay's incursion into the red zone in the second quarter, which led to a Doug Martin touchdown run.
"We said we wanted to run the ball," said McCown. "It was a great thing that we got the ball in the end zone on the one run because they didn't want you to throw it down there. They were going to close the middle and they were going to make you run the football in the end zone. When you see what they have given up run-wise throughout the season and what we felt like we could do, we set out saying we were going to run the ball and when you stick to it you have to give yourself chances. You have to keep handing the ball off if you're going to stick to it and let the guys get hot and let them get going."
If anything, the Buccaneers got away from the formula in the second half, thought that's largely because they were throwing the ball on most downs on their last two drives, trying to overcome a one-point deficit. Tampa Bay was averaging 4.6 yards per carry at halftime but had far less success on the ground after the intermission. Still, the commitment to the ground game was there and that helped make it a close game at the end.
"It was a tight game right up until [the end]," said Smith. "They were doing kind of the same thing. We were right in it, right up until the end of the game. This was our game plan, we felt like we could run the football. Our game plan put us in position. We can't really get into how many pass yards we have. It's about what we need to do to win the football game and I don't have a problem with that."
1. In the Bengals' favor: Third downs.
Tampa Bay's defense surrendered just 288 yards of total offense on the afternoon but did allow Cincinnati to convert on a relatively healthy five of 11 third down tries. That 45.4% success rate is the highest the Bucs have given up in a game in which they allowed less than 300 yards since 2010. The point is, while the Bengals had trouble hitting any big plays, they did manage to keep the clock moving more often than Tampa Bay's defense would have liked.
The problem for the Buccaneers came when they had to stop the more "manageable" third downs. Of the Bengals' 11 third-down attempts, five needed six yards or less to succeed, and Cincinnati converted four of those. They moved the chains just once on five tries from beyond six yards.
That one conversion on a longer attempt was a key play, however. Facing third-and-11 at their own 19 and in a position in which they would likely be punting away with two-and-a-half minutes to play, the Bengals managed to move the chains on a 30-yard sideline catch by James Wright, easily their most explosive play of the day. The Bucs' defense did get the ball back, but not until Tampa Bay had burned all of its timeouts and the Bengals had flipped field position.
"We didn't get the ball back when we needed to get the ball back," said Banks. "They converted on a third down they shouldn't have converted on. We did our job the second time around and got the ball back, but it's a team thing. We've just got to be better as a team."
Indeed, it all adds up. The Buccaneers played well enough in some categories to come away with a victory on Sunday, but the visiting Bengals did just a bit more.