CB Ronde Barber took the ball away from Pittsburgh three times on Sunday, but the Bucs turned those turnovers into just one touchdown
Something about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2-3 start to the 2001 season just doesn't add up.
As a Buccaneer fan, you may have had that vague feeling already, but we're not speaking figuratively here. Literally, something isn't adding up the way it normally does.
Consider this: From 1997 through 2000, a stretch in which the Bucs won 39 games and three postseason berths, the team had a positive turnover ration in 29 games. They won 27 of those contests and lost two.
In four games with positive turnover ratios this season, the Bucs have already matched those two losses from the last four years.
Even in games with an equal turnover ratio from '97 through 2000 the Bucs were 4-2. They're 0-1 this season.
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Furthermore, in those 64 games over the last four years, the Bucs' composite turnover ratio was just plus-10, thanks to an NFC-best plus-17 last year. This season, through just five games, the Bucs are already plus-six, tied for second-best in the NFC.
It's a coaching axiom as old as the wishbone: 'Win the turnover battle, win the game.' And yet the Bucs must have snapped off the short end of their own wishbone, because something mysterious is keeping that adage from coming true this year.
Or something not so mysterious, perhaps. It's that same fundamental concept that the coaching staff is pointing to for all of the Bucs' current struggles: execution, or the lack thereof.
"Usually, you're winning games (with turnovers), but we have not been sharp and we have not been taking advantage of them," said Head Coach Tony Dungy, who believes the above axiom as staunchly as any coach. "We just have to play better. If we continue to be plus in the turnover department and we're just a little sharper, we're going to be fine."
Last Sunday's game was a made-to-order example for Dungy's analysis. The Bucs took the ball away from Pittsburgh's offense three times – each time by CB Ronde Barber, by the way – yet scored just one touchdown off the turnovers. With two minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Bucs, trailing 17-3, badly in need of a play to turn the game around, Barber intercepted QB Kordell Stewart's deep pass at the Bucs' 40 and returned it 10 yards to midfield.
The resulting drive reached a first down at the Steelers' 16-yard line, but a holding penalty, a sack and a screen pass batted down in the backfield put the Bucs into a third-and-31 and they couldn't capitalize with a score. Barber had to pick up another loose ball on a fumble late in the fourth quarter to set up the Bucs' only touchdown of the game.
When the Bucs played in Minnesota a month ago, they won the turnover battle in that contest as well, intercepting Daunte Culpepper twice but scoring just a single field goal off the two takeaways near midfield. What disappointed Dungy about that effort is that they could have had an even better TO ratio. The Bucs will need to take advantage of those turnover opportunities in the rematch, according to the coach.
"Really, we got two turnovers up there but we had a chance for some others that we couldn't quite get," he said. "That's always going to be big when you play them because they're so efficient moving the ball. Somehow, you've got to stop them. You've got to create those plays to give your offense good field position."
The good news, assuming that turnovers do start leading to victories, as they always have before, is that the 3-3 Vikings are 29th in the league in turnover ratio, with eight more giveaways than takeaways. Minnesota has had a particularly hard time holding onto the ball, tying for the NFC lead with eight fumbles lost, but the Bucs' specialty is interceptions. Only Cleveland, with 13, has more picks than the Bucs' 10.
"We're minus-(eight) in turnover ratio, which is a huge disadvantage for our football team," said Minnesota Head Coach Dennis Green. "But I think we're showing some signs of playing better football."
A 35-13 victory over the previously division-leading Green Bay Packers is, indeed, a good sign of improved football, but the Vikings still lost the turnover battle in that affair, 2-1. As it turns out, their one takeaway was one of the game's biggest plays, a Kailee Wong interception that went 27 yards in the other direction for a touchdown.
"They are creating turnovers," said Bucs QB Brad Johnson, who has noticed an upswing in the Vikings' defensive intensity. "They've had turnovers for touchdowns. They had one against Brett last week that really changed the outlook of the game."
And that's exactly what turnovers can do. In fact, they play a very significant factor in the outcome of almost every game, the Bucs' strange 2001 stats notwithstanding. All the Bucs' defense can do is continue taking the ball away, and hope that the team's excellent turnover ratio goes back to producing the same kind of, well, 'win-loss' ratio.