- The Buccaneers have played far better on third downs over the last month, especially in situations that should be favorable to the defense
- Even without a strong running game, the Buccaneers are getting the balls into the hands of their offensive playmakers with regularity
- Tampa Bay's pass rush has improved ocnsiderably over the last month, but it has almost always been better in the first halves of games
Please be assured, this is not going to be a hunt for a silver lining. You will not be asked to don rose-colored glasses or ignore the elephant in the room (or to combine those two activities, which could be dangerous). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-9 after a rain-soaked 21-13 loss in Chicago on Sunday, and the fact that Tampa Bay out-gained the home team by a 367-205 total-yardage margin is encouraging but not particularly meaningful.
Lovie Smith's Buccaneers have a formula for success, and the fact that the team has won just two of 11 games so far means that, more often than not, they have not been able to plug in all the right numbers. Most notably, the turnover ratio continues to plague the Buccaneers, as it did on Sunday when three giveaways helped turn a 10-0 lead into a 21-10 deficit. In addition, the running game continues to lose its footing and the pass protection has not been consistently good enough. Tampa Bay ran for 66 yards against the Bears and allowed Josh McCown to absorb five sacks.
And thus it is that the Bucs' can't celebrate after a very good defensive performance on Sunday, nor do they expect you to do so.
"We're not satisfied at all," said Smith. "We played well at times. We took the ball away and had some opportunities. Again, just not good enough. We've been doing good things defensively and [have] made a lot of improvement the last month or so and you have to be okay with that, but again, not good enough."
These things are all true, and as such it may not give you much comfort that the Buccaneers have clearly played considerably better over the last month or so. They've still lost four of five, but they've taken every game to the end and even mixed in a dominant road win in Washington. All is not well…but some things the Buccaneers are starting to get right. These are the parts of the formula that – when the remaining issues are cleaned up – are going to be a winning edge for Smith's team. That could be, and hopefully will be, as soon as the next five weeks.
So here are 3.5 parts of the winning formula that the Buccaneers are starting to get consistently right. What do we mean by "3.5" parts? Read on.
1. Play Tight Third-Down Defense
This was a massive problem for the Buccaneers during the first half of the season. Third-down conversion numbers are up across the board this year, to the point where a number that used to look insulting, like 40%, is now actually a bit below the league average (40.8%). Thus, we shouldn't get too bent out of shape when the Bucs' defense allows two conversions for every five attempts.
When that number gets close to 50%, however, that's a problem. And through the first six games of this year, the Bucs had allowed their opponents to convert 49.4% of their third-down tries. Generally, teams hope to get their opponents into longer third-down situations because those tend to favor the defense. Yet, through that same stretch of games, the Bucs were allowing 53.8% of third-down tries between seven and 10 yards to be converted. That is where the real problem resided.
Well, the tide has turned. Over the last four weeks, Buccaneer opponents have converted on just 34.5% of their third-down tries, which is as good as anyone in the league is doing at this point. Indianapolis' defense leads the NFL with an opponent success rate of 35.0%. Tampa Bay ranks ninth in the NFL in opponent third-down percentage over the past four weeks, after ranking 31st in the same category over the first seven weeks.
That's a massive improvement, and it has a lot do with the team finally taking advantage of what it has done on first and second down. Getting opponents into long third downs wasn't a particular problem for the Buccaneers during the first two weeks of the season; keeping them from converting in those situations was. Over the last four weeks, however, Buccaneer opponents have converted on just 26.7% of their third-down tries between seven and 10 yards.
Chicago ran into 16 third-down situations against Tampa Bay's defense on Sunday and converted on just four of them. That's a big reason why the Bears finished with just 204 yards and had 10 drives that lasted four plays or fewer. That's how it's supposed to work.
2. Get the Ball into the Hands of Your Playmakers
For much of the last month, this has meant throwing it up in Mike Evans' direction.
The rapidly-emerging rookie had a November for the ages, catching 24 passes for 505 yards and six touchdowns and averaging 21.0 yards per grab. Josh McCown was the quarterback for three of those four games, but even Mike Glennon made good use of the big receiver who was so good at winning one-on-one matchups downfield.
WR Vincent Jackson had 117 yards on five catches in Chicago on Sunday
Only the Broncos, Eagles and Giants have amassed more passing yards than the Buccaneers over the last month. As mentioned above, Tampa Bay's rushing attack has not come along but the team has still been able to move the ball by getting it into the hands of Evans, Vincent Jackson and, when needed, Louis Murphy. That trio of big and physical wide receivers has kept the offense moving even when the running game wasn't offering much aid. Rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, another imposing target, has pitched in with some big plays, as well. In training camp, it appeared as if Tampa Bay had the ability to field a multitude of matchup problems in the passing game; lately, they've been making the most of those advantages.
On Sunday, the Buccaneers scored first on what has begun to look surprisingly routine. From the Bears' 19, QB Josh McCown took a shotgun snap and glanced immediately to his right, perhaps to freeze the safety in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Evans beat a jam at the line of scrimmage and sprinted up the left sideline. McCown suddenly turned and launched a perfect spiral that found Evans loping into the end zone behind the cornerback and too far away from the incoming safety.
Before the play, McCown knew he could take advantage of this matchup, just as he had done several other times in recent weeks.
"Josh told me in the huddle to go get it," said Evans. "They pressed, I knocked his hands down and headed to the end zone and Josh threw a great ball."
The Buccaneers were more than happy to watch Evans put up record-breaking numbers throughout the month, but they obviously knew that defenses would eventually begin to change their priorities. Fortunately, the team had other weapons, and McCown was more than happy to get the ball into their hands instead. On Sunday, Jackson caught five passes for 117 yards and Murphy hauled in six for 113. Both players had a couple eye-catching moments, whether it was Jackson making a diving catch downfield of an improvised 40-yard throw or Murphy breaking through and spinning out of several tackles to pick up 54 yards. The running game has to come along at some point, but in the meantime the Bucs are perfecting ways to get the ball to their best playmakers in the passing attack.
3. Limit Big Plays in the Passing Game
Through the first eight games of the season, Tampa Bay's defense gave up a whopping 285.3 passing yards per game. Over the past three games, that number has fallen precipitously to 163.7 yards per game. At the same time, Buc opponents have continued to complete a high number of passes – 68.4% through the first eight, 66.7% through the last three.
Clearly, Buccaneer opponents are having a much harder time completing passes downfield in recent weeks.
"We feel confident that we can slow down most quarterbacks," said Smith after Sunday's game. "We've made a lot of progress in the last month or so defensively. It all starts up front. The D-Line did a great job for the most part and the back end did a pretty good job holding down great receivers, too."
Tampa Bay's opponents had averaged 8.04 yards per pass attempt through the first eight games of the season, the 29th worst mark in the league. Since then, they've allowed just 6.18 yards per attempt, the seventh best average in the NFL. Despite facing DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the past two games, the Buccaneers have not allowed a reception by a wide receiver longer than 16 yards, which is pretty remarkable.
3.5 Pressure the Quarterback
Tampa Bay's defense has sacked the opposing quarterbacks nine times over the past two games and 13 times over the last month. Before that, the team had managed just nine QB takedowns in its first seven outings.
The Buccaneers' pass rush has clearly picked up in the last month, and it's been all the front line as opposed to massive amounts of blitzing. All nine sacks recorded by Tampa Bay in the last two games have belonged to defensive linemen, including three by Jacquies Smith, 2.5 by Gerald McCoy and two by Clinton McDonald.
After chasing Robert Griffin III all over the field in Washington the week before, the Buccaneers quickly racked up three sacks of Jay Cutler in the first quarter on Sunday in Chicago. Ah, but there's the issue; after the last of those three sacks – McCoy forced a fumble by Cutler that led to the game's first touchdown drive – Tampa Bay never got him on the ground again. There was some intermittent pressure, but nothing like what Cutler had to deal with in the early going.
"As we looked at it, there were a couple match-up issues," said Bears Head Coach Marc Trestman of the early protection problems. "I would have to look at the tape in terms of the break-down side of it, but we seemed to clean it up, which was a good thing. We were able to move forward and take the hits off Jay."
In retrospect, that has been a trend for Tampa Bay's defense. Thirteen sacks over the past four games is a very good number; however, 10 of those 13 sacks have occurred in the first halves of those contests. Whether or not the Bucs have had a lead, they have had a hard time sustaining their early pass rush. Perhaps their opponents have made adjustments, as Trestman clearly believes his team did, but whatever the reason, the Bucs' quick starts in this category have not translated into 60 minutes of dominance. This is one part of the formula that Tampa Bay is almost getting right.