Last week, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali had to come up with the top five individual seasons by Tampa Bay Buccaneers players over the last 10 seasons. Why? Because I told her to.
Don't worry, this isn't a one-way street. Later in the week I had to choose the five most exciting Buccaneer victories of the last two decades. That was the topic Carmen assigned to me.
And that's the conceit of our new "Give Me Five" series. Each of us gets to do one Top Five list a week – and everyone loves writing and reading internet lists – but the twist is that we don't get to pick our own topics. I choose one for Carmen; she chooses one for me.
It's a new week so it's once again my turn to assign a subject to Carmen. I thought she nailed the top-individual-seasons list, but this one will be different. Instead of looking back, we're going to look forward. After she provides her list and the reasons for her choices, I'll weigh in with my thoughts on her picks. On Friday, she will have the chance to turn the tables with a topic for me and her opinion of my selections.
Today's Topic: The five statistics in which the Buccaneers will improve most notably from 2019 to 2020.
Just to make this a little bit harder, I'm going to give an example of what I mean, which Carmen will then not be allowed to use in her list. I'm not looking for top-level statistics like games won or points scored; I want to go at least one level deeper, if not more. My example: Interceptions thrown. I think we all expect that having Tom Brady take over at quarterback will lead to fewer than the 30 interceptions suffered by the Buccaneers last season. Brady hasn't thrown 30 interceptions over the last four seasons combined!
There, I took the most obvious one, all while pretending to explain a very obvious concept. No interceptions for you! What else have you got, Carmen?
Carmen Vitali: It's ok, I like a challenge. I was also tempted to list 'giveaways' as just another blanket way of saying decreasing offensive turnovers but I refuse to go into semantics. But keep those offensive interceptions in mind as you go through the below list.
5. 12 personnel alignment/tight end production
This was a little bit of low-hanging fruit, considering Head Coach Bruce Arians said the other week that the Buccaneers' base offense is now 12 personnel, which means two tight ends on the field. In fact, the 12 personnel alignment was already the second-most utilized formation by the offense last season, though the production wasn't quite there from the tight end position last year. The snaps were, however. Tight end O.J. Howard played the most snaps of his career last season with 782, good for 69% of the team's offensive snaps. He was just asked to play a bit of a different role than he was used to in blocking instead of being more of a pure pass catcher or another wide receiver.
Now, there could be more room for a pass-catching tight end with Rob Gronkowski, who happens to be one of the most complete tight ends to ever play the game. He can block and catch – and has a heck of a rapport with quarterback Tom Brady already. The combination of Tampa Bay fielding two tight ends and Gronkowski being one of them, is almost a guarantee for more production out of the tight end room in 2020.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
4. Third-down conversion rate
Despite having the third-most third-down conversions in the league with 90, the percentage of third-down conversions against attempts for the Bucs ranked considerably lower last year. The team's 41.5% third-down success rate put them back at 13th in the league, in fact, revealing room for improvement on that front.
In reality, you don't want to have to get to third down to move the sticks, therefore more third-down conversions don't exactly equal better, which is why you go off of percentage instead. I think overall, the Bucs' third down numbers will go down with more offensive efficiency. But that doesn't mean the conversion rate needs to go down or isn't important. In fact, you'll find some of the league's best offenses at the bottom of the list when it comes to third down attempts. For instance, the New Orleans Saints had the fifth fewest. The Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens were tied for third fewest. But the latter two teams led the league in third-down conversion rate. It seems to be a pretty good measure of success when it comes to offense.
3. Rushing first downs
Well, since Scott asked me to go a little deeper here on the stats, instead of saying the Bucs will see an increase in yards on the ground, let's say that means more rushing first downs. That statistic is two-fold. Any increase in rushing yards is likely to yield more rushing first downs. But when you decide to run it and the down and distance also make a difference. For instance, if it's third-and-long you're unlikely to run the ball given that you're already behind the chains.
But, if you're in a more manageable third-down situation or only have a couple yards to go on second down, you may sneak a run in there, resulting in a rushing first down that way. It comes with improved offensive efficiency from both the run and pass game, which is something I think the Bucs will see this year in multiple facets. The Bucs had 81 rushing first downs in 2019, a number that ranked 27th in the league, while the Bucs' rushing offense ranked 24th overall. Seeing that need for improvement, the Bucs went ahead and drafted tackle Tristan Wirfs with their first pick of the 2020 draft in hopes Wirfs can be the answer to the question mark at right tackle. It means added protection for Brady in the passing game and potentially opening up more opportunities in the run game – both factors in improving that offensive efficiency that could lead to more rushing first downs.
2. Passing yards allowed per game
The Buccaneer defense was the best against the run last season, letting up just 73.8 yards on the ground per game. The front seven had a lot to do with it, with a mix of veterans and a few young players that worked together cohesively.
Toggle over to passing yards allowed per game and you don't get the same defensive warm fuzzies. It's understandable, though. The Bucs were fielding as many as six rookies on defense at one time, most in the back level with guys like Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards. It was a sort of baptism-by-fire approach to getting the young players acclimated to the league. Plus, it was an entirely new system under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. There was predictably a learning curve – but it was one that the team seemed to turn starting in Week 10. Prior to then, the Bucs were near the bottom of the league in passing yards let up per game. Part of that was due to having young, inexperienced players. Part of it was due to the stress the aforementioned interceptions Scott talked about and other offensive turnovers put on the defense. More possessions for the opponent mean more passing opportunities – simple as that.
But here's the good part: starting Week 10, the Bucs' passing defense improved dramatically. They recorded the most pass breakups in the league in that span and then ended the season with 96 – the most of any team. Their passing yards per game went from 293.5 down to 246.8, moving them up nine spots in the rankings.
And there is still obviously work to be done.
We've heard from players like Murphy-Bunting, Dean and third-year cornerback Carlton Davis on their comfort in the defensive scheme going into their second year within the system. They aren't satisfied with what happened last season in coverage and should they improve the secondary, I have to think it would propel the Bucs into the top-five-defense conversation this coming season.
Remember I told you to keep Scott's interceptions stat in mind? Well, I'm topping this list with interceptions, too – defensive interceptions. In those talks with Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Davis, they each said their unit needs to take those pass breakups (all 96 of them) and turn more into interceptions. They want to increase the number of takeaways they have in order to help out an offense that shouldn't be giving the ball away as much as last season. The two congruent efforts should lead to a much better turnover margin for the Bucs in 2020, an area that they perhaps struggled most in last year, ranking 28th with a -13 differential.
Despite that, takeaways were actually an area where the Bucs excelled last year, finishing fifth in defensive takeaways with 27. A lot of those were forced, and subsequently recovered, fumbles, though. The Bucs were ranked 17th in defensive interceptions with 12. That's where this stat comes in. Bowles himself has said the secondary did a good job in the back half of the season getting their hands on balls but this year, but it's all about taking the next step and turning that into takeaways going into this season. With the addition of a ball-hawking safety like Antoine Winfield Jr. and the greater comfort level and experience of the other secondary players, the Bucs should improve in the category pretty drastically in 2020.
View pictures of QB Tom Brady in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Scott's Thoughts: Excellent choices, all, and I particularly like number four. I think I have a pretty good feel for team stats, and the Bucs' stats in particular, but I don't think I've ever considered the relationship between raw third-down conversions and third-down conversion rate. The fact that the Ravens and Chiefs were very low in total conversions and very high in conversion rate is eye-opening – to me, it suggest that while the Bucs' offense was certainly prolific in many ways in 2019, it can definitely be more efficient in 2020.
The only stat I half-expected to see here but didn't was field goal percentage. I feel like we're going to get the Matt Gay of the first 13 games of 2019 rather than he of the last three, and if so the Bucs should be closer to top 10 in this category.