Five minutes and five seconds into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Three game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, safety Justin Evans made a sensational interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass near midfield. Five plays later, the Buccaneers turned that takeaway into seven points on a Cam Brate touchdown catch.
For the next 296 minutes and 43 seconds of game clock – an interval spanning four games, 28 days and just under 13 hours of actual in-game time – the Buccaneers did not force another turnover. Isaiah Johnson ended that drought seven minutes into overtime of a Week Seven contest against the Cleveland Browns when he recovered a Jabrill Peppers fumble caused by Antony Auclair. That long-awaited takeaway set up the game-winning field goal.
In between those two turnovers, the Buccaneers committed 13 of their own. The Buccaneers have done plenty of things well over their last four games and faltered in many other ways, but there is no better explanation for the team's 1-3 record in that span than the turnover differential. And you don't have to convince Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner of that.
"Turnovers [are] probably the number-one factor in winning and losing the game, no doubt," said Duffner. "People talk about a lot of things – statistics, sacks and that type of thing – but I can prove to you that it is about takeaways."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
Indeed, the Buccaneers' win on Sunday was a pretty major anomaly. That was the 62nd time that Tampa Bay has finished a game with a -3 turnover ratio, and just the fourth time in those 62 it has come away a winner.
In fact, things could be a bit worse for the Buccaneers if they hadn't done a reasonably good job of minimizing the impact of those turnovers. The best and most recent example: Lavonte David forcing Cleveland's Baker Mayfield to fumble out of bounds and fail on a fourth-down attempt near the Bucs' end zone after a Brate fumble on Sunday.
Somehow, the Buccaneers have a -9 turnover ratio, third-worst in the league, but have only been outscored off turnovers by a 31-24 margin. Opponents have averaged just 2.07 points scored per takeaway against Tampa Bay, which is the fourth-lowest mark in the NFL. That is not likely sustainable, given the Buccaneers' overall defensive numbers. The league average in this category 3.10 points per turnover, and all four teams that rank ahead of the Buccaneers are also in the top six in overall defense; Tampa Bay is 29th.
Still, the defense deserves kudos for what it has done to limit the damage of offensive giveaways, and they actually got quite a bit of them after Sunday's overtime win. Head Coach Dirk Koetter, for instance said that, "we put our defense in a lot of bad spots." The next step for that defense is to start creating turnovers of their own again. That crew's drought is actually still active, as the most recent turnover was forced by the special teams.
Despite this nearly unprecedented drought, the Buccaneers' current defense has proven that it can create takeaways as well as any team in the league. Tampa Bay was at +2 in the turnover ratio department after their 2-0 start, and from the beginning of the 2016 season through that point, the Bucs had forced 59 giveaways, the fourth most of any NFL team in that span. Based on what he saw in practice last week, Duffner expected his defense to get back on that type of roll last Sunday. He cited one time that it did carry over – the aforementioned forced fumble by David – and while that technically was a turnover on downs, not a turnover, in spirit it was what Duffner was looking for.
"On the run game and the pass game, we've got to attack the ball," he said. "We had a heck of a week, I thought, in terms of practice last week, doing that. And frankly, thank God it turned out when a conscious effort by Lavonte David to get the ball off the quarterback when he was scrambling after a pressure. The ball in the air, we've got to catch the ones that are thrown to us. We've got to attack the ball in flight. We had a number of pass break-ups; I'd like us to come back down with the ball. We're working hard at that."
MORE WORK FOR JONES: RB Peyton Barber appeared on the injury report for the first time this season, as he was one of four players held out of practice on Wednesday. Barber suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter of Sunday's game against Cleveland and played sparingly after that.
Barber's mishap led to more action for rookie Ronald Jones, who had six carries and one target, including his first touchdown run at the end of the third period. Jones was also busier on Wednesday as the Bucs began preparing for their upcoming game against the Bengals and would presumably be on Sunday in Cincinnati as well if Barber is sidelined or limited.
"He took the majority of everything today which is great for him," said Koetter. "Everybody gets more reps. Heck, [rookie back] Shaun [Wilson] got a lot of reps today and those guys are – with Peyton down today – everybody gets more turns."
After a strong game in Atlanta in Week Six, Barber was limited to 30 yard on 11 carries in the win over Cleveland, but Koetter stressed that this was not a step back. In fact, Koetter has been pleased with Barber's work throughout the season and says the back's modest numbers are the result of the situation he's in.
"I think Peyton's ready to go to the next level," said Koetter. "As I say, I feel like I'm saying this every week, Peyton just needs touches. He needs carries. I think we threw it 52 times out of those 90-something plays. We actually called more passes than that because Jameis [Winston] had his runs. Peyton right now is on a team that's a pass-first team with really good skill guys at wide receiver and tight end. He's just got to hang in there. I don't think Peyton is doing anything wrong and I think RoJo is doing a good job of catching up and closing the gap. Right now, we're just a pass-first team."
PIERRE-PAUL CHAIRS THE BOARD: DE Jason Pierre-Paul had one of the Buccaneers' season-high five sacks on Sunday against Cleveland, and that marked the fifth straight game that he has recorded at least one sack. That's just one shy of the Buccaneers' team record, set by Simeon Rice back in 2002.
This run has also matched Pierre-Paul's own individual best; he closed out his 2014 season in New York with a streak of five straight outings with a sack, getting a total of nine in that span on the way to 12.5 for the season. Assuming he can continue to produce at something close to his current level, Pierre-Paul looks like a good bet to crack double digits again, which would make him the first Buc to do so since Rice in 2005.
Duffner said that Pierre-Paul was rewarded for his efforts on Sunday by being named one of the team's co-players of the week, along with defensive end Carl Nassib, who had two sacks against his former team. That's just the latest way that coaches on Tampa Bay staff have raved about Pierre-Paul's efforts.
"His energy and effort is terrific – I love the guy," said Duffner. "I just can't say enough about how hard he plays. He comes out and he does it the right way. He's certainly got great talent. A lot of people have talent, but he's been able to turn that talent into production largely because of his attitude and his desire to make plays – to be a playmaker. We're real excited about Jason and what he's contributed and what we expect him to further contribute to the defense."