QB Chris Simms has thrown just one interception over the last four games
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has allowed 16 touchdown drives in 12 games this season (the other three TDs against the Bucs were on returns). Of those 16 end-zone incursions, five – or basically one-third – have come after the opposing team started its drive inside Tampa Bay's 10-yard line.
The Bucs have been called the master of the bend-but-don't-break defense, but there's not much room to bend when you're starting out with your backs on the goal line.
The numbers really are startling. When Buccaneer opponents have been forced to start out at least 10 yards away from the end zone – and that's not asking too much, really – they have only been able to take it all the way in on 11 of 132 drives. However, when a turnover makes it first-and-goal, those opponents have been a perfect five-for-five.
Despite ranking second in the NFL through three-quarters of the season, the Buccaneers' defense has taken its share of criticism this season, whether for a lack of big plays early or a third-and-long issue of late. Take away the short drives, though, and that proud unit has really been very stingy. The Bucs lost to Chicago 13-10 thanks to a one-play, one-yard touchdown drive after a fumble, the Bears' only trip to the end zone. The next weekend, Tampa Bay allowed only a field goal in a 10-3 victory over the Saints.
The Carolina Panthers didn't have any one-yard drives in their 34-14 win in Tampa, but they did get the ball inside the Bucs' 40 twice and they scored 10 points off those two gifts of field-position. The Panthers also scored the game's most damaging points on a 61-yard interception return by cornerback Chris Gamble.
The Bucs, who haven't lost any other game this season by more than five points, believe they are much more evenly matched with the Panthers than that last score would indicate. But they also know that they must avoid putting their defense into such terrible positions.
"To win this game we definitely have to eliminate turnovers and all the mistakes because this defense and this team really doesn't give up too many points, or make many mistakes," said running back Michael Pittman. "It will come down to us. Last week, I do not think that we had a turnover [on offense], and that is going to be key for us winning this game. Running the football is going to be key.
Indeed, the Bucs secured four interceptions against the Saints and didn't give the ball away once. There's no doubt that the plus-four turnover ratio was the single most important factor in the final outcome, as three of the four turnovers ended very real New Orleans scoring threats.
Win the turnover battle, we say for not the first time, and you'll probably win the game. To which you respond, tell me something I don't know.
Well, how about the specific numbers as they apply to the Buccaneers? Granted, it's not a new concept, but it's still surprising how severe the numbers are. This season, for instance, the Bucs are 6-1 when they have more takeaways than giveaways, and 2-3 when they don't. Take it over the last five years and the split is just as wide: 32-8 (an .800 winning percentage) when the Bucs win the turnover battle and 9-27 (.250) when they don't.
Or how about this: Tampa Bay has allowed 199 points this season, fourth-lowest in the NFL. Of those 199 points, 82 have been the result of turnovers, either directly on the return or on the ensuing drive. That's a little over 40% of all the points the Bucs have allowed.
If that number is still 82 after Sunday's game, the Bucs will have a much bigger chance of pulling off the victory on the road.
"We can't make mistakes, can't turn the ball over," said quarterback Chris Simms. "We shot ourselves in the foot a few times in the first half last game [against Carolina]. When we get some momentum going we need to keep it going and not ruin it ourselves."
Really, Simms and the Buccaneers have already begun to clean up that area. After turning the ball over 15 times in the first nine games, they've only given it away three times in the last four weeks, and they've won three of those four games. There was a single giveaway each against Washington, Atlanta and Chicago and none last weekend in Baton Rouge. Of course each of those single turnovers against the 'Skins, Falcons and Bears resulted in a touchdown for the opposition; the Bucs were able to overcome that to beat Atlanta and Washington, but that early one-play touchdown against the Bears proved to be a killer.
It's one of the oldest lessons in the game, really, but it's so well-known only because it's so true. Turnovers win and lose ballgames, and the Bucs are likely to prove that once again, one way or the other, in Charlotte this Sunday.