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. Get Off the Field
As is the case in most preseasons, thanks to the constant shuffling of personnel and the occasional experimentation at positions, the Buccaneers' defensive results this August were decidedly up-and-down. There was one defensive category, however, in which Tampa Bay excelled during the 2012 preseason: Third down percentage.
The Buccaneers held their opponents to 16 conversions in 53 third-down attempts, for a success rate of 30.2%. That was the fifth-best mark in the NFL this preseason, and it wasn't based on one or two particularly strong games but rather a consistent effort through all four contests. Not one of the Bucs' four preseason opponents cracked 40% in third-down tries.
Now, as quickly as we dismissed the overall numbers from the preseason, so should we put little stock in this one particular statistics. Hopefully, it is a harbinger of good things to come in the regular season, though, as third-down success has tied in strongly with the team's overall defensive results through franchise history. The best Buccaneer defenses were consistently able to get off the field quickly.
For the last five seasons, as Tampa Bay's defense has seen a gradual decline from its incredible run of more than a decade of top-10 finishes, the defensive third-down rate has been at or over 40%. In 2002, when the Bucs won the Super Bowl, it was 33.6%. Three years earlier, when they made it to the NFC Championship Game almost exclusively behind the play of a ferocious defense, it was 32.3% In fact, from 1997-2005, the extended peak of the Bucs' defensive prowess, their opponents never finished with a third-down success rate of higher than 36.3%. Even looking further back in team history, to the first great Buccaneers' defense, the trend holds. In 1979, the Buccaneers earned the top spot in the defensive rankings and stunningly advanced all the way to the conference championship game in just their fourth year of existence. That year, opponents converted only 32.0% of their third downs, still the second-best mark in team annals (the record is 31.7% in 1998). The following year, that number rose dramatically to 44.0% and the Bucs record fell to 5-10-1.
2. Long-Range Weapon
The Buccaneers also tied for first in the NFL during the preseason in field goal percentage…which is to say, they made 'em all. Tampa Bay was six-for-six in field goal attempts in August, which is particularly impressive given that three of the six tries were from beyond 50 yards and only one was closer than 41. The Bucs' six field goals in the preseason came from an average of 46 yards away. Nice.
Of course, we should give first-year K Kai Forbath applause in regards to those efforts, as he was responsible for five of those six field goals. Despite that performance, it was no surprise when Forbath was released on Friday, as the team has an outstanding incumbent kicker in Connor Barth, who signed a new deal this spring after getting the franchise tag. For his part, Barth only got one try in August but he blasted home a 56-yarder on that occasion.
So far, Barth's greatest strength as the Bucs' kicker since his arrival in the middle of the 2009 season has been his dependability on field goals. He set the franchise's single-season record for accuracy last year at 92.9% by making a spectacular 26 of his 28 attempts, and he is currently the team's career leader in that category as well, at 84.0%.
What is perhaps less celebrated but just as impressive is that Barth has been particularly excellent from long distance, as compared to league norms. From 2009-11, Barth ranked sixth in the NFL in field goal percentage on kicks of 50 or more yards, at 66.7%. He's making those tries on two of three attempts; the majority of the league's kickers are below 50.0%. In addition, Barth ranks ninth in that time span in FG percentage from 40 to 49 yards. The most impressive part: He is one of only three kickers to rank in the top 10 on both lists, joining Rob Bironas and Sebastian Janikowski.
3. A Fine Way to Start
The (very, very) welcome arrival of the regular season next week will obviously provide us with much more fodder for future bouts of football geekery. In the meantime, here's a final note that's more of an interesting oddity than any real deep look into the stats.
On September 9, the Buccaneers will open their 2012 season with a home game against the Carolina Panthers. Oddly, that will mark just the sixth time in the team's 37 seasons of play that it has started the season at home against a division opponent. It has only happened once since realignment created the four-team NFC South in 2002. It used to happen on a slightly more regular basis prior to 2002, when the Bucs were in the five-team NFC Central, which meant half of their 16 games overall, and half of their home dates, were against divisional opponents.
Should the Bucs defeat the Panthers on the ninth, it could at least be seen as a good omen. On only two other occasions in team history have the Buccaneers opened the season with a home win against a division opponent, and on both occasions they went on to make the playoffs. The first such occurrence was in 1979, when a Week One victory over Detroit at Tampa Stadium kicked off Tampa Bay's sudden leap into prominence, which would end in the NFC Championship Game. It happened two years later, as well, when an opening win at home against Minnesota started off a 9-7 record and another playoff berth.
There probably isn't much predictive power in a sample of two games and two ensuing seasons. Still, a home game against a division foe on opening week is a very rare occurrence for the Buccaneers; hopefully they can make the most of it and rekindle that decades-old streak.