RB Warrick Dunn and the Bucs' running game is generally dominant in the late going of close games
The most surprising factor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current four-game losing streak is the manner in which each of the four contests has been decided.
Four straight games up for grabs in the last quarter; four straight times the Buccaneers failed to capitalize.
"We have some things go wrong, fight our way back, get close in the fourth quarter, and really don't have enough of whatever it takes to win against a good team in the fourth quarter," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "That's disappointing."
The Buccaneers are 3-4 because they shot out of the gate with three wins before this unfortunate stretch. Tampa Bay won those three tilts by an average margin of 23.3 points, and even the five-point season-opening win at New England was in the Bucs' hands from early on.
However, if you think the Bucs are going to pull out of their tailspin by going back to lopsided victories, think again. The overwhelming likelihood is that the Buccaneers will be involved in more close games in the season's second half, and it will be essential that the team rediscovers what had made it so successful in that scenario in the previous four years.
A stat compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau indicates just how likely it is the Bucs will be involved in a series of dogfights down the stretch. In the 71 regular season Tampa Bay games played since Dungy took over in 1996, the Buccaneers have averaged 17.9 points per contest and their opponents have averaged 17.1.
Those games haven't just been close, they've been extremely low scoring. According to Elias, the average two-team score in Dungy's first 70 games was the second lowest for any NFL head coach (minimum: 50 starts) who has debuted in the last 60 years.
The thing is, that worked just fine for the Buccaneers in previous years. Tampa Bay was 5-3 in games decided by seven points or less last year, 4-3 when they made the playoffs last year. The Bucs, moreover, were 27-2 coming into this season in games in which they led going into the fourth quarter.
That edge hasn't been there this season.
"I think last year's team thought we were going to be in a lot of close games and we'll win them and somehow make that play to do it," said Dungy. "This year, when we're in the close games, it doesn't seem like we're taking it by the throat. I don't know what the difference is, but somehow we have to get it back because we're playing good teams down the stretch and the games are going to be close.
"I don't know if we started out the year with those three wins and our mentality was that games weren't going to be close," said Dungy. "Now when they are, we're not there. I think last year's team had an identity and we're searching for that."
That identity, for the most part, was a deep and rugged defense and a strong running game that overpowered the opposition in the final quarter. At least part of that formula is still intact, or was in the last game against Detroit. The Bucs' depth on the defensive line allowed the team to keep outstanding pressure on QB Charlie Batch, who was sacked once in the first quarter, twice in the second, three times and the third and one more time in the fourth.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' run defense broke down in the fourth period against the Lions, with Detroit posting 51 of its 170 rushing yards and two rushing TDs in that quarter. The Bucs, on the other hand, were able to run the ball just four times for 27 yards in the fourth quarter, three of those scrambles by QB Shaun King. Tampa Bay also committed two of its four turnovers in that period.
Safe to say, that is not the anticipated course of action for the Buccaneers the rest of the way.
"I don't really think it matters who we play, when we play or where," said Dungy. "We've got to get ourselves going. That's what we did last year. We had a couple of tough road games, we had a couple of tough home games, but we started playing better. That's going to be the key for us. If we turn the ball over – and I think we've had 13 in the last four weeks – if we continue to do that, it's going to be tough no matter who we play. And if we don't get our run defense back to where it needs to be, it will be tough.
"If we do what we need to do, I think we can put a streak together."