- Tampa Bay's red zone efficiency has trended in the opposite direction of many other factors since the bye week
- Relative to the rest of the NFL, the Bucs main problems in the red zone have come on first down
- Better production in the end zone will allow the team to take advantage of the defense's improved play
In many ways, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been significantly better in the six games since their bye week than they were in the six games before.
The majority of those ways are on defense, where the Buccaneers have been the fourth-stingiest team in the league in terms of yards and the 10th-stingiest in terms of points. The pass defense, in particular, has seen a massive improvement, ranking fifth in the NFL over that span and producing the fifth-most sacks and the sixth-most interceptions. Pair that with a minor bump in the offensive rankings (from 30th up to 22nd) and some good work on special teams (e.g. 2.4 yards allowed per punt return) and the Buccaneers should be seeing some more results in the win column.
Still, the Bucs have won just one of those six games, despite having a very real chance to prevail in all of them. One major issue – and aspect of the Bucs' play that has bucked the trend and gotten significantly worse since the bye week – is red zone offense.
That was very specifically a problem in the Bucs' one-point loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, after an interception on the first play of the game set the home team's offense up at the Bengals' nine-yard line. The Bucs eventually kicked a field goal…from the 14-yard line. The Bucs were about to run a third-and-goal play from the five before a false start and an errant snap took that opportunity away.
"You can't get in the red zone and not have the touchdowns," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "You've got the first drive and you're getting ready to throw a touchdown to Mike [Evans] and the ball is on the ground. It's just things like that where you get in the red zone and you get a penalty and you get knocked out of the red zone or you get a play called back on a good run, you got momentum and you get it called back. It's one of those things where it's just anything, it doesn't have to be a penalty, and it can be a missed execution, that's really what it comes down to. You've got have more red zone points when you're down there, you've got to finish, you've got to find a way to finish and you've got to find a way to not beat ourselves. This is another week for us to go back find those things and point them out with whoever is out there for us."
One of the reasons the Buccaneers have struggled in the red zone is that they have had trouble on the very first snap once they get into that fertile ground. Stats LLC tracks "successful plays" in the red zone, which when applied to first-down snaps mean any play on which the offense gains 40% of the necessary yards for a first down. A successful play on second down is getting 50% of the yards needed for a first down and, of course, a successful play on third or fourth down means getting the first down.
Tampa Bay's success rate in this category on second down is 44.8%, which is just below the league average of 48.4%. On third and fourth downs combined, the Bucs sit at 36.8% while the league average is 40.5%. However, on first down the Bucs are succeeding just 36.8% of the time while the NFL as a whole is at 46.4%.
In the second quarter, the Buccaneers did have a successful red zone possession, as Doug Martin ran it in for a touchdown on second-and-seven. The offense nearly shot itself in the foot again, however, with a false start after gaining a first down at the eight, but a six-yard run by Martin made up for it and kept the play-calling options open. Too often, that has not been the case.
QB Josh McCown has been frustrated by the offense's inability to turn more of the team's takeaways into touchdowns
"We've got to do a better job in just our focus and we've got to demand more from ourselves because those things are stopping us," said McCown. "And it's a shame because, this past game specifically, because it puts you…you get behind the sticks, especially when you're running the ball the way we ran it in the first half, but you start having penalties and you get behind the sticks and you can't run the ball, it changes what you're doing."
Tampa Bay's offense has shown some big-play ability – thanks in large part to Evans – and has been able to score on strikes from just outside the red zone. The Bucs are 21st in the NFL in scoring outside the red zone, better than such teams as Kansas City, Seattle and Miami and just a bit behind the Saints and Bengals. If they could complement that with better work once they cross the 20, the Bucs would be a lot higher than 28th in points scored per game.
And they have shown the ability to do that. Using the same diving point as the bye week, one sees a rather sudden dip in the team's effectiveness inside the 20. In the first six games, the Bucs were scoring touchdowns on 63.2% of their red zone incursions; for comparison's sake, that success rate would rank eighth in the NFL if the Bucs had maintained it over the next six weeks. Instead, that number has dipped to 33.3%, and accordingly Tampa Bay's points-per-possession in the red zone has fallen from 4.74 to 3.58. That's more than a point per trip, and if that doesn't seem significant, check out the final score against Cincinnati one more time.
And it's obviously exasperating for McCown and his fellow players on offense who want to take full advantage of the good work the defense has been turning in of late. Over the last six games, the Buccaneers have started eight drives on the opponents' side of the midfield stripe, most of those due to turnovers, and converted only three of them into turnovers. They've had three drives that started at the opposing 29 or closer and none have reached the end zone.
"More than anything, just not capitalizing and finishing off of our defense's turnovers is what's been frustrating," said McCown. "Those are the things I'm disappointed in."
On the other hand, it is a probable that definitely seems correctable. Often, the problem has had nothing to do with how well the players run, throw, block or catch. Not included in those red zone numbers is the Bucs' last drive of the Cincinnati game, even though at one point it appeared to reach the Bengals' 20-yard line. Technically, that wasn't an "inside-the-20" possession, but more importantly the ball didn't stay at the 20 for long. A 12-men-on-the-field penalty wiped out the 21-yard catch by Louis Murphy that got the ball to that spot and moved the team out of field goal range.
"You look back, there's been situations where we've succeeded, so to speak, and it's been more procedural things that have stopped us," said McCown. "[Against] St. Louis, hit the big play down to Mike and we're in range and [we had a ten-second runoff due to an injury]. Pittsburgh, we go down and we win the game. Then this weekend – physically, between Louis and I, we get it done, but a procedural thing stops us. We make that play, but a procedural thing stops us. So yeah, those things are frustrating."
Cleaning up those procedural things could help the Bucs return to their successful ways in the red zone, which in turn should allow them to capitalize on all the other things that are suddenly going right.
"When you're that close and you don't win, then there's some things we really have to get figured out before we can really become a good football team," said Smith. "It's a fine line, and once you get over that big fence or whatever it is, some good things are going to happen down the line, and that's how I feel."