Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Greg Olsen an X-Factor for Panthers

Football Geekery: Once again this year we channel our inner pigskin nerd and dive a little deeper into the statistics to help illuminate Buc football…This week: prolific tight ends, 2-0 division starts & more.

Photos of the Panthers' projected starters from team's website.

Statistics can help illuminate the game of football…or they can take us down a misleading path.  As Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith said: "I believe in stats, but it's [which] stats."

Smith, for instance, doesn't pay much attention to the NFL's defensive rankings, since they are based on yards, which he considers a meaningless measure.  When he shares defensive stats with his team, he focuses on points allowed, takeaways, scoring on defense and red zone proficiency.

Here on Buccaneers.com, we unabashedly love stats, but we also understand the need to wield them wisely.  Sometimes, we can get a better feel for why the team is performing as it is by going a little deeper into the numbers. Other times, we simply want to point out a few numbers we consider interesting, and hope you will find it interesting as well.

That's our goal with Football Geekery.  Each week, we're going to give you a sampling of statistical and/or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs.  This week we begin by examining just how central tight end Greg Olsen is to Carolina's offense. We also note that either the Buccaneers or the Panthers will be 2-0 in NFC South play with one win each at home and on the road, and examine what that might mean. We finish with another look at third downs, this one focusing on passer rating as compared to other downs. Let's get started.

**

1. Pay Attention to Greg

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has already been targeted by his quarterback, Cam Newton, 28 times in 2015, or 9.3 times per game. As the Buccaneers prepare to take on the Panthers on Sunday, they are fully aware that Olsen, who leads the Panthers with 15 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns, is the favored weapon in Newton's arsenal.

Olsen is tied with New England's Rob Gronkowski for the most targets by a tight end this season. What's doubly interesting about that is the offense in which it has occurred. Carolina is tied with Cincinnati for the second-highest number of carries per game, at 32.7, and those two are just a hair behind San Francisco, at 33.0. Carolina has 42 more carries than it has receptions (98 to 56), and that's the widest split in the NFL.

Olsen and Gronkowski have both been targeted 28 times, as mentioned, but Tom Brady and the Patriots have 132 targets overall (third in the league and second among teams that haven't already played their fourth games), while Carolina has 99 (19th in the league). That means that Olsen has been on the receiving end of 28.3% of the Panthers' targets, compared to 21.2% for Gronkowski. Those are both high totals, but Olsen's is significantly higher.

In fact, it's practically off the charts for a tight end. Let's go back to the 2000 season, since targets haven't always been tracked. Since then there, have been exactly 25 tight ends who have been on the receiving end of at least eight targets per game, including four so far this season. If Olsen maintains his pace and the Panthers' passing attack maintains its pace, Olsen would have the second highest percentage of his team's overall targets in that span. Only sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez had a higher rate in any given season, and it wouldn't be a stretch to see Olsen catch Gonzalez's 2008 figure of 29.0%. Not including Olsen's season so far, there have been seven seasons in that span in which a tight end has accounted for at least a quarter of his team's targets, and four of them belong to Gonzalez.

  • Here's the list of 25:*

Rk.

Player

Team

Season

Targets

Tgts/Gm.

Team Tgts

TE's %

1

Tony Gonzalez

KC

2008

155

9.7

534

29.0%

2

Greg Olsen

CAR

2015

28

9.3

99

28.3%

3

Kellen Winslow

CLE

2007

148

9.3

533

27.8%

4

Tony Gonzalez

KC

2007

154

9.6

555

27.7%

5

Antonio Gates

SD

2005

140

9.3

516

27.1%

6

Jason Witten

DAL

2007

141

8.8

525

26.9%

7

Tony Gonzalez

KC

2004

148

9.3

554

26.7%

8

Tony Gonzalez

KC

2004

150

9.4

572

26.2%

9

Vernon Davis

SF

2009

129

8.1

521

24.8%

10

Tony Gonzalez

ATL

2009

135

8.4

548

24.6%

11

Jordan Reed

WAS

2015

26

8.7

107

24.3%

12

Jason Witten

DAL

2015

25

8.3

105

23.8%

13

Jeremy Shockey

NYG

2002

127

8.5

541

23.5%

14

Jason Witten

DAL

2012

149

9.3

650

22.9%

15

Freddie Jones

SD

2000

129

8.1

566

22.8%

16

Jimmy Graham

NO

2011

149

9.3

657

22.7%

17

Jason Witten

DAL

2010

128

8.0

568

22.5%

18

Jimmy Graham

NO

2013

143

8.9

644

22.2%

19

Jeremy Shockey

NYG

2005

121

8.1

547

22.1%

20

Dallas Clark

IND

2009

132

8.3

601

22.0%

21

Rob Gronkowski

NE

2014

131

8.7

601

21.8%

22

Rob Gronkowski

NE

2015

28

9.3

132

21.2%

23

Martellus Bennett

CHI

2014

128

8.0

608

21.1%

24

Jimmy Graham

NO

2012

135

9.0

656

20.6%

25

Aaron Hernandez

NE

2011

113

8.1

609

18.6%

2. A Leg Up in the Division

The Buccaneers are hoping to even their overall 2015 record at 2-2 with a win over the Panthers on Sunday. As Head Coach Lovie Smith has pointed out on several occasions this week, that would also give Tampa Bay a very attractive 2-0 start in divisional play.

If the Bucs can get that 2-0 mark it would be just the eighth time they have won their first two intra-division games, including their one year in the AFC West (1976), 25 years in the NFC Central (1977-2001) and 14 years in the NFC South (2002-15). They made the playoffs in four of those previous seven seasons, qualifying in 1979, 1997, 2000 and 2007 but not in 1988, 1990 and 2011.

It's worth noting that a win over Carolina would also give the Buccaneers one home and one road win within the division. In six of those seven seasons mentioned above, the Bucs started 2-0 in the division with at least one of those wins on the road. They made the playoffs in four of those six. In the two seasons in which they got that start but didn't make the playoffs, both of their wins were against the same team – home and away wins over the eventual 4-12 Green Bay Packers in 1988, then home and away victories over the eventual 6-10 Detroit Lions in 1990.

In other words, even though it's a very small sample size of just four seasons, the Buccaneers have made the playoffs every single time they've won their first two division games, with at least one of those on the road.

The NFC South has been notoriously unpredictable, with a string worst-to-first rebounds in its early years and no repeat champions until Carolina pulled off that feat in these last two years. However, it turns out that a 2-0 start with at least one road win has almost always clarified things a little bit. Surprisingly, that has been accomplished just seven times overall but the four NFC South teams over 14 years, and it has almost always led to a very successful season.

Team

Season

Record

Playoffs?

Div. Title?

Carolina

2013

12-4

Yes

Yes

New Orleans

2013

11-5

Yes

No

Atlanta

2010

13-3

Yes

Yes

Tampa Bay

2007

9-7

Yes

Yes

Atlanta

2006

7-9

No

No

Atlanta

2004

11-5

Yes

Yes

Carolina

2003

11-5

Yes

Yes

That's six out of seven teams that went on to make the playoffs, including five division winners. Atlanta in 2006 is the only exception.

And there will be a team to add to that list this year, thanks to this Sunday's matchup at Raymond James Stadium. Carolina already has a home win in the division and the Buccaneers already have a road win so, barring a tie, one of those two will complete the feat in question when they meet in Week Four.

3. Getting Better on Third Down

Last week here in Football Geekery we examined third downs on offense and defense to see which one, in terms of the Bucs' own history, it was more important to get straightened out. Based on the correlation between successful seasons and good work on third downs both offensively and defensively, we suggested it was more important to improve in the latter category.

Alas, the Buccaneers didn't fare well in either category in Week Three in Houston, and that may have very well been the difference in  game that was 10-9 going into the fourth quarter. The Bucs' defense allowed eight conversions in 18 attempts (44.4%) while the offense was only able to convert one of 12 third-down tries (8.3%).

Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter certainly felt as if the offense's third-down woes were central to the final outcome, and he also believed that the Buccaneers were very close to having a good day in that regard, which is encouraging.

"We just didn't throw and catch on third down," said Koetter. "[The] protection was outstanding. Houston's game plan was to take us out of our run game and see if they could get there with their pass rush – I'm talking first and second down. We did a really nice job on first and second down. We hit our passes, we hit a bunch of explosive [plays], we protected. We got to third down and we still protected good, we just didn't throw and catch. We either threw it on target and dropped it or we had the guy wide open and missed it. We were 1-for-12 on third down. If you really look at all those third downs back-to-back-to-back, if we just do what we're supposed to, we could be 9-for-12 on third down. We have to pitch and catch. An NFL team's got to make those plays."

Koetter described the third-down protection of QB Jameis Winston as good and feels there were some missed opportunities, suggesting that scheme was not the main issue. Koetter later described a specific footwork mistake that led to a couple off-target throws, and that is obviously something that can be corrected. It is unlikely that the Buccaneers will have many more games in which their third-down passing is so much off from what they accomplished on the first two downs. The difference in Winston's passer rating between his overall totals in Houston and his third-down totals was 64.4%, a decline of 92.9%. That's the third-biggest decline for any quarterback in a game this year and the highest decline in terms of percentage.

Koetter is right to think that third-down passing struggles can make a critical difference in the game's outcome. So far this season (including the Week Four Monday night game in Pittsburgh), there have been 91 individual quarterback outings in which the player hit the minimum number of passes to be ranked in both overall passer rating (minimum of 20 passes in the game) and passer rating on third down (minimum of five).

If you rank all 91 of those games by the quarterback's third-down passer rating, there is a very strong correlation between a high number in that category and victory. In fact, 17 of the top 20 performances on that list were posted in victories for that quarterback's team. Of the 20 lowest ratings on the list, only three came in victories, and two of those three were in games against quarterback performances also on the bottom 20 of this list.

There is also a correlation between the decline (or lack thereof) in a quarterback's rating from all situations to just third downs, though not as strong as the one above. Of the top 20 performances in terms of how much better the quarterback played on third downs, 11 came in victories. It's a little better if you split the list (almost) in half: 29 of the top 46 came in wins, while only 17 of the bottom 45 were in wins.

The results are similar if you rank the list by percentage of decline in passer rating from all situations to just third downs, although it's a little starker at the bottom. Of the 12 games in which a quarterback's passer rating fell by at least 50%, only Atlanta's Matt Ryan got a win against Philadelphia in Week One. Not surprisingly, the Eagles' Sam Bradford also had a precipitous drop on third downs in that game, too (73.0% for Bradford to 90.8% for Ryan).

Of course, across all passing results in the league, one should expect a decline from the overall passer rating to passer rating on third down, as the defense is more likely to be expecting the pass on third down and arranging its defense accordingly. And indeed, NFL passers have combined for a 90.9 overall passer rating this year and an 84.8 rating on just third downs. If you want it broken down a little further, the combined QBs have a 90.0 rating on first down and a 95.6 rating on second down.

We should also acknowledge that a quarterback can have a noticeable drop in his third-down rating if his overall rating happens to be especially high. In beating New Orleans last week, Carolina's Cam Newton saw his rating drop from 119.7 overall to 72.2 on third downs, and that latter number, while not sparkling, was plenty good enough to win. Still that was a drop of 47.5 points and a percentage drop of 39.7%. So far, only four quarterbacks have put together a game in which they had an overall passer rating of at least 80 and an efficiency drop of at least 50% on third down, and three of them have lost:

QB

Team

Opp.

Overall

3rd Down

Pct. Drop

Tyrod Taylor

BUF

NE

93.3

8.3

91.1%

Matt Ryan

ATL

PHI

90.1

8.3

90.8%

Matthew Stafford

DET

SD

83.5

31.5

62.3%

Marcus Mariota

TEN

IND

84.2

40.4

52.0%

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