The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their Week Six bye on an encouraging note, having defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars, 38-31 to end Week Five. In many ways, particularly on offense, the game resembled a blueprint of how the 2015 Buccaneers plan to win games. A rushing attack that was productive from beginning to end set up favorable situations for rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who passed the ball efficiently and without any significant mistakes. The Buccaneers won the turnover battle, controlled the clock and rushed the opposing passer very well.
Of course, it wasn't perfect, as the 31 points scored by Jacksonville would indicate. The Buccaneers were actually trailing near the end of the third quarter, and they had to recover an onside kick in the final minute to secure the victory. And while the team headed into its bye week with confidence and the knowledge that they were still very much in the playoff hunt, they expected to have more than two wins before the break.
"I will continue to say, it's hard winning in the NFL each week," said Head Coach Lovie Smith as the bye week began. "And five games into the season we have two wins. To start this second quarter [of the season], we have one win, and that's the best position we can be in right now. We need to build on that."
Building on that pre-bye week win means continuing to lean on the team's demonstrated strengths and, in the meantime, addressing some of its more pressing weaknesses. Statistically, the Buccaneers have already begun the improvements in some key areas, such as converting third downs on offense (22.5% in the first three games; 48.1% in the last two) and keeping red zone drives out of the end zone on defense (100% TD rate in the first two games; 58.3% in the last three). Let's look at five more areas on the stat table in which improvement after the bye could lead to even more success for the Buccaneers.
1. Converting Short Third Downs (43.8% success rate)
As mentioned above, the Buccaneers have done much better on third downs over the past two games, which includes not only the Jacksonville win but a loss to Carolina in which they racked up 411 yards of offense. The team moved the chains on almost half of its third downs in those two games, ranking sixth in the NFL in that category over that time span.
As was also mentioned above, a strong running game against Jacksonville kept the Bucs out of unfavorable down-and-distance situations for most of the game. Unfortunately, the team still only converted one of three third-down attempts of three yards or less. Overall, the Buccaneers have had an unusual amount of difficulty in that area. On third down tries of four to six yards, Tampa Bay actually ranks 11th in the NFL, with a success rate of 46.7% compared to the league-wide rate of 43.3%. It makes little sense, given that, that the team's success rate from 1-3 yards goes down to 43.8%, compared to a league-wide rate of 56.5%
This is likely to get better. Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter has shown plenty of variety in his play-calling, particularly when the rushing attack has allowed him to stay with the game plan. If the Bucs can convert from four to six yards, they certainly can do the same on shorter third-down tries.
Improvement in that area would send positive ripples into other areas. The Bucs are 29th in the league in 10-play drives on offense, and tied for 26th in drives that last at least five minutes. More conversions of favorable third downs will allow the team to sustain drives and do a better job of controlling the clock. The Bucs are 20th in the NFL in average time of possession (29:31), a category in which the team has already shown significant improvement over the last two games.
2. Avoiding Flags (48 accepted penalties against)
Penalties have been an acknowledged problem for Lovie Smith's team in 2015, with the Buccaneers having already committed 48 accepted penalties for 391 yards. The Bucs' rates of 9.6 penalties and 78.2 yards per game both rank second in the league to Buffalo (10.3 and 97.2, respectively). Of course, the undefeated Broncos and Patriots are also in the top six, and ranking first in the league in penalties the last two seasons didn't stop the Seahawks from making two straight trips to the Super Bowl.
Still, even if high penalty rates don't necessarily correlate with losing, it's hard to deny that the Buccaneers have hurt themselves with flags on several occasions this season. They have hit double digits in accepted penalties in four of five games and have yet to commit fewer fouls than their opponent in any one game. Furthermore, the 78.2 yards walked off on penalties per game does not include the extra yardage lost when successful plays have been wiped out, and it does not adequately describe the opportunities often lost. It's a lot easier to stay within one's offensive game plan when the situation is second-and-five rather than first-and-20.
The Bucs did draw just five flags in Game Four against Carolina, and few of their 10 infractions against Jacksonville were serious game-changers. Some penalties will always be unavoidable, as the game is fast and mistakes can happen when a player is trying to make a play. There is, too, some matter of subjectivity to some calls, which can only be controlled by the referees. That said, the Buccaneers have room to reduce their per-game penalty totals, and if they do they'll likely find improvement in the bottom line as well.
3. Striking Quickly (3 first-possession points scored)
Tampa Bay got off to a very good start against Jacksonville, taking the opening drive 62 yards on nine plays to get into position to crack the scoreboard first. That's good, because the Buccaneers' winning percentage over the last decade is more than twice as high (51.5% to 24.1%) when it scores first instead of the opponent scoring first.
Unfortunately, the drive stalled just inside the red zone and the Bucs had to settle for Connor Barth's 35-yard field goal instead of seven points. In addition, those were the first points the Buccaneers had scored on their first possession of the game all season. The Bucs are tied for 25th in the NFL in first-possession points, with three. The Bucs have one touchdown this season on their first possession of the second half, with those seven points tying the team for 21st in the league.
There isn't one simple solution to the Bucs' lack of first-drive scoring; there is much that goes into sustaining any drive, and the team has gradually gotten better at it over the course of the season. One might suspect that the aforementioned strong running game would be one of the keys, as successful plays on the ground early in the game should create shorter third downs and open up more options in the playbook. However, that first drive against Jacksonville was built mostly on Jameis Winston completions of 17 yards to Brandon Myers, 14 yard to Vincent Jackson and six yards to Charles Sims. In this particular case, the Bucs passed the ball well at the start (using play-action on several instances), which likely helped open up the rushing attack on subsequent drives.
Whatever the Bucs can do to start games more quickly, it would likely help quite a bit. The two teams with the most first-possession points this season, Cincinnati and Green Bay, are a combined 12-0 so far. The undefeated Patriots are tied for fourth. The Patriots and Packers are first and second in points scored on the first possession of the second half.
4. Blitzing successfully (104.5 opponent passer rating allowed)
The Bucs' defensive blueprint starts with getting pressure with a four-man rush, which is why the strong play of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (4.5 sacks) and defensive end Jacquies Smith (4.0 sacks) has been important. Still, Smith's defense is going to bring extra pass-rushers from time to time, and the Buccaneers need to get to the quarterback more often when they do. Obviously, sending additional players into the backfield leaves fewer defenders to cover the pass-catchers, so a blitz that fails to add much pressure is a recipe for quick success on offense.
The Bucs had some success with both types of pass rush in the win over Jacksonville. McCoy got a sack and a half late in the game as the team was trying to hold on to its lead. First-year man Howard Jones made a surprising splash in his first regular-season NFL game, ending two early Jacksonville drives with third-down sacks. Meanwhile blitzes led to sacks or partial sacks for linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander and cornerback Alterraun Verner.
That surely helped the team's blitz numbers, but they still do not rank among the league's best this season. According to Statspass, the Buccaneers have allowed an opponent passer rating of 104.5 on "blitz passing situations," as compared to an overall league rate of 87.4. That opponent passer rating for Tampa Bay is slightly below its numbers allowed on all passes, but only slightly, and it ranks 25th in the NFL.
Verner has recently begun playing the nickel back position, and could end up being a revelation as a blitzer from the slot, in the mold of (if not necessarily quite as proficient as) Ronde Barber. David has shown the ability to get to the passer in the past, with a seven-sack season in 2013, and Alexander, the speedy rookie out of LSU, was good in that role in college. There's reason to believe the Buccaneers' blitz success will improve markedly after the bye.
5. Moving the Ball in the Red Zone (2.44 yards per play)
On a per-play basis, the Buccaneers are moving the ball fairly well on offense. Their average of 5.4 yards per snap is better than their opponents' mark of 5.1, and it ranks 17th in the NFL. After getting just 4.3 yards per play in the season opener, the Bucs have topped 5.5 in every game since, and it's 5.7 over the last three games. The Bucs are just a hair under the NFL average of 5.5.
As one would expect, the league-wide average of yards per play goes down when teams get closer to the opposing end zone. You've surely heard it said that there is "less room to operate" around the opposing end zone, and that makes intuitive sense. In a more concrete sense, there is simply less of an opportunity for a big play. A team's per-play average is obviously spiked whenever it gets one of those 50 or 60-yard hits, such as Charles Sims' 56-yard catch-and-run against Jacksonville. Obviously, you can't gain 50 yards on a play that is snapped from the 25.
The problem for the Buccaneers is that their average per play in and around the red zone has, so far, dropped by a larger amount than the league average. Tampa Bay averages 2.86 yards per play inside the 30 and 2.44 yards per play inside the 20. That's a 47% drop in per-play production in the first category and a 55% drop in the second. The league as a whole drops from 5.54 overall to 3.75 inside the 30 and 3.07 inside the 20, for drops of 32% and 45%, respectively.
Again, Tampa Bay's offense has shown steady improvement and the team could be getting back some key performers after the bye week, such as tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Bucs were averaging 3.75 points per red zone trip over their first three games, but that improved to 4.70 per trip over the most recent two. If the Buccaneers can get just a little more per play out of their snaps in and around the red zone, those scoring totals should improve, too.