Coaches don't always care for stats…but we love them! Each week, we're going to give you a closer look at three or four pieces of statistical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs.
Let's get started.
1. Spare a Nickel?
The Buccaneers would seem to have a bead on their likely starting cornerbacks, especially with E.J. Biggers sidelined until sometime early in the regular season. Aqib Talib returns to man the left cornerback spot while free agent signee Eric Wright leads the depth chart at the right cornerback position Ronde Barber vacated to move to free safety.
Even if that does end up being the starting duo, however, the Buccaneers are far from finished with their work on the cornerback depth chart. Not only must they decide how many and which cornerbacks to keep, but they also need to determine their top choices for the nickel and dime backs.
"Nickel back" is the common term for the extra cornerback that comes into a game to combat an opponents' three-receiver set. It's so called because that defensive alignment (DB replacing an LB) is usually called the "nickel," as it features five defensive backs overall. When a team takes two linebackers (or, less frequently, one LB and one DL) off the field and goes with six defensive backs, that is (less logically) referred to as a "dime" package. A team may not always designate a specific "dime back," but rather have a couple possible packages for that situation. For instance, in training camp, the Buccaneers have been seen moving Barber up near the line of scrimmage and bringing Ahmad Black in to play free safety on some six-DB snaps.
The player(s) the Buccaneers choose to round out their nickel and dime packages will almost surely end up being extremely important this fall. That's because NFL defenses actually play with extra-DB packages on a surprisingly high percentage of snaps.
Last year, the Buccaneers were in their base 4-3 scheme for 53% of their defensive snaps, according to statistics compiled by Football Outsiders. If you've enjoyed the statistical revolution in baseball, you'll appreciate the work of the Football Outsiders, who bring the same sort of highly technical analysis to America's favorite sport.
The same table of statistics shows that the Buccaneers' defense was in a nickel alignment on 30% of its plays last year, and in a dime on 13%. Together, that means the team had at least one extra defensive back on the field for very close to half of its snaps, and it gets a little closer if you add in a handful of plays on which the team employed a 3-3-5 alignment (three down linemen, three linebackers, five DBs).
Moreover, while the Buccaneers' defense wasn't particularly effective overall in 2011, it was most effective in the nickel package (and least effective, by a long shot, in that aforementioned 3-3-5). Football Outsiders has devised a proprietary statistic it calls "DVOA," for Defensive-adjusted Value over Average. Read about it here if you'd like, but suffice it to say for our purposes that larger numbers indicate better offensive performance. An effective defense, thus, would return negative numbers. Tampa Bay's defense recorded a DVOA of 12.6% in its base package but 6.2% in the nickel. However, adding another defensive back didn't help matters; in the dime, the defense's DVOA went back up to 15.9%.
The Buccaneers obviously hope to improve those numbers in every category in 2012. You'll hear plenty about the need for production from such key starters as Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Aqib Talib and Mason Foster. But don't forget, the man the Buccaneers choose to be their primary nickel back could also end up having a big impact on how the defense fares this fall.
2. Run, Buccaneers, Run!
We won't go to the Football Outsiders well too often, because not every fan enjoys the acronym-heavy stat work often associated with "Moneyball" in baseball. Here, we look at a much more straightforward subject, one that any fan watching the Bucs' preseason opener in Miami probably saw for him or herself.
Greg Schiano said the Buccaneers' offense would commit to the run in 2012, and the first chance they had to play it live, that's exactly what they did. In defeating the Dolphins 20-7 in their preseason opener, the Buccaneers ran the ball on 34 of their 58 plays from scrimmage, or 58.6% of the time. That percentage was even higher in the first half, with the starting offensive line and running backs involved, as the Bucs ran on 20 of 32 snaps before the intermission. That's a 62.5% run rate.
It's worth noting, too, that much of that was at a grind-it-out pace. Thanks in part to seven first-and-goal runs inside the 10, the Bucs averaged only 2.5 yards per carry against the Dolphins. They also ran into the teeth of a stacked Miami defense in the second half while working with a two-touchdown lead, averaging just 2.1 yards per carry after the break. But they stuck to it, scoring twice on the ground and controlling the ball for nearly 34 of the game's 60 minutes.
It won't always work this fall, but the Buccaneers are certainly going to try their best to make it work every Sunday. Could they be expected to run it as frequently as they did in Miami?
Well, they won't if they stick close to any NFL averages. Last year, all 32 teams combined to average 436.6 rushing attempts during the season, while throwing an average of 544.1 passes and taking an average of 37.1 sacks. That means the NFL as a whole called for runs on just 42.9% of its plays from scrimmage.
Obviously, some teams ran the ball more frequently (Houston, Denver, San Francisco) and some found their passing games so effective (Detroit, New Orleans, N.Y. Giants) that they could lean heavily in that direction. No team ran the ball more than 53.7% of the time, however, and that team at the top of the charts clearly had its numbers affected by a quarterback who liked to tuck it and run: Denver and the since-departed Tim Tebow.
The Buccaneers ran on only 35.8% of their plays, one of the lowest percentages in the league, but that was clearly affected by the large early deficits they frequently faced in the second half of the season. It's a virtual certainty that the Bucs' run percentage will go up significantly from that total in 2012, but it would be surprising if it settled near the frequency it was used in last Friday's game.
The NFL is an increasingly pass-heavy league, and it's almost certain that no team will run it near 60% of the time in 2012. The Buccaneers probably won't get there, but if they are anywhere near 50%, they will be among the league's most run-heavy squads. Don't count it out.
3. Pressure Packed
The Buccaneers mostly dominated their preseason opener in Miami on both sides of the ball, but they finished the game without a single sack. (The Dolphins' defense didn't have one, either.) Since then, several Tampa Bay defenders have made a point of reminding us that pressure on the opposing quarterback isn't all about sacks, and that the statistic can be overrated, especially in the preseason. Defensive end Michael Bennett points out that the Dolphins, in particular, were running a no-huddle attack and getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand as quickly as possible, perhaps to avoid the much-despised preseason injury.
Bennett and fellow starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn actually spent quite a bit of time in the Miami backfield during their roughly one quarter of action apiece on Friday. And that shouldn't come as a surprise. Tampa Bay was low on the NFL list of team sacks last year, but they did get a decent amount of pressure off the ends.
In 2011, according once again to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers got a vast amount of their quarterback hurries from Bennett and Clayborn. Clayborn ranked first on the team with 29.5 hurries, followed closely by Bennett with 26.5. The next highest total on the list actually belonged to half-season Buccaneer Albert Haynesworth, with a distant 7.5.
And those were good numbers for Bennett and Clayborn in relation to the rest of the league. In fact, both Buccaneer ends were ranked in the top 15 in the NFL in that category, even with Bennett largely limited over the last five or six weeks by nagging injuries. Clayborn's total ranked ninth in the league, while Bennett came in at #15.
As coaches and players often point out, sacks don't tell the whole story about the effectiveness of a team's pass-rush. Pressure can occasionally disrupt a play just as significantly as a sack. The Buccaneers hope to be higher on the NFL's team sack chart in 2012 than they were in 2011, but most of all they want to keep constant pressure on the opposing quarterback, and they may have the right defensive ends to get that done.