FB B.J. Askew's one-yard touchdown run against Minnesota on Sunday gave the Bucs a successful red zone-end zone conversion
The undefeated Tennessee Titans rank 20th in the NFL in both yards gained on offense and third-down conversion rate. The steamrolling New York Giants are having trouble getting a decent kickoff return. The high-powered Indianapolis Colts are 24th in the NFL in yards gained on first down plays. Tom Hanks made "Ladykillers."
It's hard to find a perfect resume out there. To wit: Right now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tied for last in the NFL in touchdown percentage on drives that reach inside the 20.
In other words, statistically, the Buccaneers are struggling on offense inside the red zone, in case you haven't heard. And in this case, the statistics aren't particularly misleading. Tampa Bay's offense has left some points on the board this season when it gets near the end zone, and Head Coach Jon Gruden has acknowledged as much. After the Dallas game in Week Eight, in which none of the Bucs' three red zone trips ended in touchdowns, Gruden said this:
"We looked at it and statistics say we're not very good at times. There are some instances where we're clearly playing for a field goal at the time. There are also some instances where we've got to do a better job. We've got to do a better job."
What seems to irk Gruden, and understandably so, as he has fielded an increasing number of questions on the topic, is the notion that those current red zone numbers define the Buccaneers' offense. The Bucs have had some problems in the red zone, in the last four games in particular, but they don't believe their approach on offense or their talent level is fundamentally flawed. And there are plenty of numbers to back that up, if it's statistics you want.
In particular, what should be noted is that the Bucs have been in the red zone 42 times, which is the fourth-highest total in the league. That's almost three times the total of inside-the-20 trips owned by the team with which the Bucs are tied in touchdown percentage, St. Louis. That suggests the Buccaneers are going to get many more opportunities to turn those red zone issues around.
"We realize we've got to do better but we've been down there more than anybody in the league, almost," said Gruden. "A lot of teams are having a hard time getting the ball down into the red zone. We've got to do better, we've got to score touchdowns. And we will. I'm confident in that. But there are a lot of good things we're doing – our third-down conversions, time of possession, we're doing some very good things throwing the football."
Indeed, Tampa Bay is tied with three other team in the NFL for the most drives this season that have lasted 10 or more plays, an indication that they are capable of sustaining drives long enough to get repeated scores. The Bucs, Cardinals, Saints and Giants all have 21 such possessions.
As Gruden mentions, Tampa Bay's offense has been good at converting third downs in order to stay on the field. In fact, with a success rate of 41.7% on third downs, this Buccaneer team is the best that Gruden has had in that category since arriving, and that number, if maintained, would be the franchise's best mark since 1984 (42.9%).
Tampa Bay's average time of possession – 32:20 per game – is fourth in the league. The Bucs are holding the ball for an average of 9:07 in the collected fourth quarters of their games, and long drives in that period are often a big success if they merely chew up the clock and end in a field goal.
Perhaps most surprising in the numbers regarding the Bucs' offense is how well the team is doing on first down. The Bucs are third in the league behind Arizona and New Orleans with an average of 5.56 yards gained per play on first-down snaps. They are also third in the league behind Denver and the New York Jets in terms of how many of their first-down plays gain at least four yards. The Bucs have picked up that much – usually considered a win on first down – 51.4% of the time this year.
So much is going right for the Buccaneers and their ninth-ranked attack. Soon, they believe, the same will be true in the red zone.
"Everybody's pointing to our woes in the running game and the red zone; we're making as many yards as anyone in the league," said Gruden. "We're doing a lot of good things on third down. Our quarterback's completing 75% in the last three or four games. We've had a lot of three and four-yard gains."
The Buccaneers have run out to an imperfect but very promising 7-3 record despite their undeniable red zone stumbles. They've won three of their last four contests despite being four of 18, touchdown-wise, in the red zone in that span. The offense will almost certainly have to produce better numbers inside the 20 going forward than it has so far in order for the Bucs to accomplish their postseason goals. And they expect to do just that.
Sabby's Super Ad
For some Super Bowl watchers, the minutes between the action are as entertaining as what takes place on the field. Yes, the Super Bowl has become so big that even its commercials are an event.
Last year, the ad voted most-liked from the huge collection of over-the-top big-budget productions on Super Bowl Sunday sprung from a simple conversation in the Houston Texans' locker room.
In 2007, as part of a new promotion called "Super Ad," the NFL gave dozens of players the opportunity to tell a compelling story on camera. Producers from NFL Films turned the best of those stories into short videos and let football fans vote online for the ones they liked the most.
In the end, the tale told by Texans tackle Ephraim Salaam about inspiring teammate Chester Pitts to play football won out through several rounds of balloting and was turned into a full-fledged commercial to run during Super Bowl XLII. The touching piece became the most popular ad of the day and was singled out for praise by multiple media outlets. Salaam and Pitts have since appeared on the Ellen show multiple times to discuss the commercial.
The program was such a success last year that the NFL is bringing it back for 2008 as "Super Ad: Believe in Now." NFL Films has sent crews to every team facility around the league, including One Buccaneer Place, and has shot another round of story-telling players.
And Buccaneer safety Sabby Piscitelli could become this year's Ephraim Salaam. Piscitelli told the NFL Films crew a story about promising his father an interception on his 60th birthday and then, amazingly, delivering on that promise. Of the six Buccaneers who sat down with NFL Films, Piscitelli told the story that was chosen as the most compelling.
Piscitelli's story will now go head-to-head with five other players from the NFC South in a competition to be the division's representative in the next round of the Super Ad voting. Buccaneer fans can vote for Piscitelli by visiting the Super Ad section on NFL.com. Visitors can also watch the videos shot by the other five Buccaneers – Geno Hayes, Josh Johnson, Elbert Mack, Clifton Smith and Aqib Talib – as well as player from around the NFL.
Fans will vote on the 24 stories from NFC players on nfl.com/superad from November 20 – December 3. Four NFC stories, one from each division, will be selected to continue to the Championship Round where they will compete against four videos from the AFC as well as one wildcard video. The Championship Round runs from December 18, 2008 – January 4, 2009. Fans will have eighteen days to vote for their favorites with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.
Fans can visit the "All Videos" section to watch all 215 NFL players' stories posted on nfl.com/superad. Fans will then watch the winning pitch, and the player who told it, during Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday, February 1 on NBC.
A Familiar Look
The typical Buccaneers practice during the regular season follows what is called a 12-12-12 format. That's 12 plays for the offense, 12 plays for the defense and 12 plays for special teams. When the offense or defense is in session, reserve players on the other side of the ball form a scout team that tries to simulate what that week's opponent will be doing, matching its systems and, if possible the skills of its key players.
This week, the Buccaneers are emulating the Lions, and the same thing is taking place in reverse in Detroit. What's interesting about this particular week is that the Lions should be able to form one of the most accurate scout-team defenses one could imagine.
That's because seven of the 24 defensive players currently on Detroit's roster are former Buccaneers. Five of them start: nose tackle Chuck Darby, right defensive end Dewayne White, strongside linebacker Ryan Nece, left cornerback Brian Kelly and free safety Dwight Smith. All of those players have at one point started in the exact same position in Tampa. The two former Bucs serving as defensive reserves in Detroit are defensive end Corey Smith and safety Kalvin Pearson.
Of course, players such as White and Kelly aren't going to be spending too much time on the scout team. Still, the Lions should have a pretty good feel for how to run the Buccaneers' style of defense, compounded by the fact that Head Coach Rod Marinelli, Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry and Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake all sprouted from the Tampa tree, too.
"They run the Tampa Two style defense up there," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who remembers well the Bucs loss in Detroit last October. "It is a lot of the same checks, a lot of the same calls. We have to be on that and change some of our verbiage up so they don't feel comfortable with our language at the line of scrimmage. That might have been part of it. I just think that they hit some more plays than us, they were a little more physical than we were last year, but I think that we have to be more physical this time around."
The heavy Tampa flavor on Detroit's defense is an interesting side note to this weekend's game, but most of the players who remain in pewter and red think it is a minor issue, at most.
"I don't think it's going to be a deciding factor," said tight end Jerramy Stevens. "It's something that you've got to prepare for, and respect the fact that they are familiar with what we do. You've got to take that into account but it's not going to be the deciding factor in the game."
Added linebacker Derrick Brooks, who recalls the Lions jumping on his team early in that 23-16 loss last year: "The emotions of former players, former coaches, that again has nothing really to do with Sunday. We have to keep the focus on us and make sure we're ready to go getting off that plane up there in Detroit."
Since it is the rare veteran in the modern NFL that plays his entire career with the same, team-to-team connections are very common. Last week with the Vikings in town, Hovan battled against the team for which he had once starred, and two games ago the Buccaneers faced a head coach in Kansas City, Herm Edwards, who had been part of the franchise rebuilding process in Tampa in the late '90s.
"Pretty much every week we see teams where there are Buccaneer connections," said Gruden. "This one here is an understatement. We have a lot of respect for Rod. He's a great coach. Obviously Joe Barry and a number of players, those guys are World Champions. I'm excited to see these guys. At the same time we've got to play a lot better than we have on the road to win. Last I checked, we were down 24-3 in Arrowhead right before the half. So we've got to play better football on the road."
Two of the Buccaneers who were limited on the practice field on Wednesday returned to full participation on Thursday. Running back Warrick Dunn (back), who is expected to start on Sunday at Detroit, was unlimited for the week's second workout, as was wide receiver Ike Hilliard (shoulder).
On the other hand, tight end Alex Smith (ankle) went from participating in a limited fashion on Wednesday to not practicing at all on Thursday. Gruden conceded that Smith's move down the injury report makes it less likely he'll play against the Lions.
"Based on today, I'd probably say that," said Gruden. "But we'll give him in another day and see how he feels."
The Lions' long injury report got a little better on Thursday. Four players who were held out on Wednesday were able to get back on the field in a limited fashion: defensive tackle Chuck Darby (calf), wide receiver Calvin Johnson (quad), running back Rudi Johnson (knee) and guard Edwin Mulitalo (knee). All but Rudi Johnson are starters.
In addition, safety Kalvin Pearson (shoulder) progressed from limited participation on Wednesday to full participation on Thursday. Contrastingly, cornerback Brian Kelly wasn't on the injury report on Wednesday but he was added on Thursday (limited participation) due to an ankle injury.