CB Brian Kelly already has three interceptions this year, leading the Bucs' turnover barrage
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden was asked this recently: What statistical indicators, besides points scored, are most closely tied to winning and losing in the NFL?
His answer won't really surprise anyone who's been a fan of the league for any length of time: Turnovers and time of possession.
Those contentions are easily supported by the numbers, across the league and in the Bucs' case specifically. Over the last five seasons, including the start of 2005, Tampa Bay is 28-7 in games in which it has a positive turnover ratio. That's a ridiculous .800 winning percentage. The Bucs are 6-6 in games when that ratio is even and a dismal 2-18 when they give it away more than they take it away.
As for time of possession, the Bucs are 28-12 when they control the clock for more than 30 minutes over that same stretch of seasons, and 8-19 when they don't.
The 2002 Buccaneers, bound for Super Bowl glory, had a full-season turnover ratio of +17 and an average time of possession mark of 31:43. Last year, when they dropped to 5-11? Try -9 and 29:43.
Some numbers of this variety can be misleading. For instance, this year the Bucs have run the ball over 30 times in each game and are 3-0, running their record under those circumstances to 18-2 since 2001. Does that mean the Bucs should simply hand the ball off on their first 30 plays this Sunday against Detroit, since 30 carries seems to equal victory? Of course not. The cause-and-effect link there isn't solid; more plainly, a team is likely to get more carries when it is already leading and is trying to run out the clock.
No one argues the same about these indicators. Turnovers often lead directly to quick scores, which lead directly to victory. Keeping the ball away from your opponents keeps them from putting it into the end zone on offense. What is debatable is how much control a team can really have over these numbers.
After all, a defense can play 60 minutes of spectacular football and never really get an opportunity to take the ball away. The Bucs had one of their most dominant defensive games in years in beating Buffalo 19-3 two weeks ago, but they didn't take the ball away once.
In that case, however, there were several easy chances for turnovers missed. The Bucs won anyway, but they know they won't always be able to overcome such missed opportunities every weekend. That's why they've worked so hard on the turnover aspect of the game this year, starting nearly every practice with drills designed to promote takeaways on defense and prevent giveaways on offense.
"Taking the ball away, the turnover ratio, the margin – we worked on that in training camp," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "If we lead the turnover margin, then we're going to win the game, nine times out of 10. Definitely, winning the turnover battles will be big for us."
The Bucs had two of their four takeaways in Green Bay in the fourth quarter, when the Packers were rallying from a six-point deficit and had to put the ball in the air. Besides practicing stripping and catching the ball every day, that's another way the Bucs can pump up their takeaway numbers, by making an opposing offense one-dimensional.
"Once it starts, it just keeps coming and coming," said Phillips. "Like I said before, it starts with just stopping the run. If you don't stop the run, they're not going to throw the ball, so those opportunities are not there."
As for time of possession, the Bucs have dominated in that category for the obvious reason: They've run the ball extremely well. There are some other factors, as well. Sustained drives eat away at the clock, and Tampa Bay has sustained its drives by converting almost one half of its third-down attempts. Four of the Bucs' seven touchdown drives have covered at least 70 yards, and all seven have gone at least 50 yards.
There are some warning signs, however. The Bucs have made too many of their drives an exercise in futility by committing an excess of penalties, a whopping 34 for 301 yards in just three games. That has led to drives starting at their own 10 following kickoffs and other drives dying in third-and-17 purgatory.
If there's one area of the Bucs' game through the 3-0 start that is concerning, that needs to be cleaned up, it's that propensity to draw flags.
"It's been addressed over and over," said veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks, the team's undisputed leader. "It's to the point now where we're going to be accountable. That's something that we really stressed as players to not let that come back to haunt us. We have got to address that with seriousness, plus some real accountability. Hopefully we start today, and get that corrected."
Turnovers, penalties and the road to victory weren't the only topics being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game against Detroit. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
QB Brian Griese on how much Anthony Becht has added to the running game: "He's done a great job. When I hand the ball off on some of our stretch plays and outside zone plays, the push that he gets off the ball really gives Carnell an opportunity to make cuts on the other side of the line of scrimmage rather than in our backfield. Not only that, but also in our pass protection, he's done a great job in some of our six and seven-man pass protection. He's been a great addition for us."
TE Anthony Becht on spreading out the ball more: "We're running the ball well; we also are an effective passing team. But, 'Cadillac' has been doing well for us. Obviously, we're always going to have our wrinkles in our offense, but 'Cadillac', we feed off him throughout the game."
Griese on striking an offensive balance: "I think we're still learning what our identity is going to be. Teams really haven't had an opportunity to see much of our running game on tape and had an opportunity to prepare for it. I expect to see more defenses trying to play us to stop the run, which is something that we really haven't been accustomed to very much. So, yeah, our offense is going to change and our philosophy is, I think, going to be to play the defense in a way that gives us the best chance to win, whether that be running the ball or throwing the ball. As of late, it's been running the football."
RB Carnell Williams on anticipating teams loading up more to stop him and getting a lot of carries: "For one, I think that just goes with the guys around me. Maybe we're going to have to change the pace a little bit, get some more guys involved or whatever, but physically and mentally I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to continue to run the ball and the guys up front are going to continue to open holes. I really don't think it will make a difference."
LB Derrick Brooks on Carnell Williams and the offense giving the defense a rest: "Yes, their success has allowed us to do that. At the same time, we have played well as a team. Even our special teams unit with the field position, keeping teams backed up. It's been a total team effort so far this year. Again, our offense has been running the ball exceptionally well in the second half of the games."
WR Michael Clayton on if he's surprised opposing teams still haven't stacked the box against Williams: "They will. I'm not surprised. Who would have expected Cadillac to do what he's done so far? The guy's just giving his 100% effort and doing a heck of a job. I think everybody respects, and now teams in the National Football League are going to have to respect it, too."
Griese on if he expects Detroit to stack the box and try to stop the run: "I really don't know. I didn't have a chance to see them last week, they were on a bye week. I don't know what they're going to do, but I know from our standpoint we're going to be ready. If they're going to allow us to run the football, we're going to run the football. And if they do get into some of those overloaded fronts, we're going to throw the football because we feel good about our passing game as well."
Becht on if rookies should pace themselves: "It depends. 'Cadillac' seems very motivated this season to be a very effective runner. If he takes care of his body and does the things he needs to do, he'll last for the season. He's the focal point of our offense and we're going to give him his blows. He needs to be a workhorse for us right now and do the things he's doing and he'll be successful."
Williams on if he's happy about so many rookies contributing to the Bucs' success: "No doubt, as a rookie class we're very happy about it right now. I guess I'm getting most of the attention, but it's not just me in the rookie class who are playing well. You've got Dan [Buenning], you've got Alex Smith, you've got Anthony Bryant on defense, Barrett Ruud on defense. So there are guys contributing and playing well. But I think as a class we're more proud of being 3-0 and not of the media attention we're getting. It is kind of a surprise, but I talked with Alex Smith earlier in the year and we definitely feel like we're the future of this franchise. We both agreed that we want to win now, and we wanted to come in and play early. We wanted to contribute to this team early. Therefore, coming in our mindset was to come out here and contribute to this team, and so far we've done it."
Becht on how big a weapon Joey Galloway is to the offense: "His ability and his speed, it kind of just opens everything up. You have to honor it as far as the running game is concerned because you can't bring a free safety down because you have to help out if he is lined up outside. His ability to keep his speed over the years is remarkable to me."
FB Jameel Cook on the Lions coming in after a week off: "Looking at them on film today, they're a good team. We have to prepare for them like any other week. They might be able to say, 'Yeah, we got a little rest,' and we might have an excuse saying that we didn't, but we still have to go out there Sunday and play a game. It doesn't matter."
DE Greg Spires on what stands out about the Lions' offense: "Their running back, that guy is really good, really quick. If we're not playing our gap responsibilities he's going to make us pay for it."
DT Chris Hovan on the challenges of the Detroit Lions: "Well, we have to stop the run. Kevin Jones is a great back, they have some big linemen. They want to run the ball to sub the play action. We're going to have to stop, first and foremost, the run and get after [Joey] Harrington when they start passing the ball."
DT Anthony McFarland on the Lions' attack: "Explosive offense. A lot of speed, a lot of skill positions, it's going to be a big challenge for us to come out and stop the run. Then, when you get through with that, three number one's at wide receiver, it makes your work cut out for you really. They obviously have not put up the numbers as the Colts, or the Rams. But they have a lot of talent, lot of speed. You have to be able to understand what you are dealing with."
S Jermaine Phillips on facing Detroit: "They've got a good offense. If you look at Kevin Jones and see the way he was running the ball last year, he did some great things. So, you can't overlook what they have. You definitely, first of all, have to stop the run. We're looking forward to the challenge."
McFarland on the Lions' offensive line: "Solid. Damien Woody is the best guard I've seen on tape this year. And they have solid players all across the line."
Phillips on going up against an offense with so many weapons: "We just play football. Our defense has been in the top five the last, however many years, so we've just have to continue to play the way we play. First and foremost, we've just got to stop the run."
McFarland on Lions QB Joey Harrington: "You know that's the truest measure of consistency in this league. For the most part he's been up. He's a good player with a lot of weapons surrounding him. And if he can utilize those weapons, they are a dangerous team."
Hovan on the depth and rotation of the defensive line: "We've got four guys, Simeon [Rice], Greg [Spires], myself, Anthony McFarland and then Ellis Wyms, who's a proven pass rusher and can come in and stop the run too and Dewayne White who's been playing great since coming in. We have a really good solid rotation going into games. We're able to keep fresh into the fourth quarter."
P Josh Bidwell on if he's feeling in a groove now: "Definitely. Dave Moore did a great job on Sunday. That doesn't want to be understated because it was really wet out there. He was soaked from pre-game, we just got drenched. He has a little bit of a contusion on his arm that should be getting a little better. He was on the money and the guys protected me really well. And the coverage too, I was able to get off great punts but still they were punts that were caught and tried to be returned. So, the coverage unit did an awesome job. As excited as I am, I still am very appreciative of the work the punt team has been doing. They've bailed me out and I've bailed them out and it's kind of paid off this year."
CB Juran Bolden on cornerbacks having to get over one tough play and move on to the next: "You definitely need a short memory. I hope it helps me when I get a little bit older and my kids start asking for money."
Griese on if the offense is becoming the identity of the team: "Well, I think that there's a lot more confidence, which is the first aspect of that, yeah. We know as an offense we can go out and win football games. While our defense is going to play well just about every week, we feel as an offense if our defense does have an off day we can still go out and win the football game. That's all confidence, and I think that's a great thing that we've been able to develop in the first three weeks, especially having a lot of young guys on our offense who have come in and had confidence.
Bolden on if he sees the face of the team changing from being defensive-oriented: "I don't see the defense changing. I still see the defense being the guys who fly around and make plays. The offense, they're picking it up. They're doing well. I don't even consider it 'picking it up' – they're doing their jobs. If we ever got into a shootout I still believe in our offense to get it done. That's hats off to Coach Gruden and the offense, and the receiving corps, and the running backs. They've just been playing well."
Griese on if he sees a much more physical mentality from the offense this year: "I do. You look at us last year and because of the fact that we didn't run the ball real well we were more of a finesse team, throwing the ball a lot more, short passing, long passing. Our offensive line was kind of responding to that in that they were constantly on their heels having to block pass protection. Now, especially with those guys I was telling you about on the left side, those guys are nasty. They're physical and they're aggressive, and that's something we've needed on our line for some time now."
Griese on what he likes most about Head Coach Jon Gruden's play-calling: "I'm starting to be on the same page with him in a lot of different situations. Being the second year that we've been working together, I feel a lot more comfortable with the way he calls plays, with what he's trying to get out of certain situations. I'm starting to anticipate calls that he has in certain situations in the game. I can't tell you how good it makes you feel when you know which play's going to be called, you anticipate it, it's called, you see the look that you talked about during the week and you can execute the play. That makes a lot of difference for us."
Spires on the most important thing to do this week: "Being 3-0 is great, but the most important thing is that we're playing together and as a whole team, everybody is gelling and everybody likes each other. We don't have the guy who wants to stand out and play selfish. Everybody wants to win and when you're winning everybody is happy."
Bolden on being undefeated so far this season: "Well, the thing with that is to stay a consistent unit, and not worry about being 3-0. Not worry about being 4-0, and not let the hype, the pressing issues, get to us, I think we'll be just fine. It's very hard to go undefeated in this league. You are as good as your last game. You look forward to any challenge, and you keep on pushing and pushing."
Cook on how the team should approach its 3-0 start: "Just continue and strive to get better. Don't be comfortable with the situation we have now. This is a good situation for us, being where we're at, but we can't dwell on it. We just have to get better."
Bidwell on if he thinks the Bucs' attitude is serious enough: "I think so. We've worked really hard in the offseason and I know the guys are really serious about what we want to accomplish this year. Coach Gruden's done a great job of getting us motivated, getting goals set for us week-in and week-out. I'm just really proud of the guys and how we went up there to Green Bay, because they were such a dangerous team to go in and play at home with their backs against the wall. Having been on that team in a similar situation before, I knew what they were capable of doing. The way the defense came out and just shut down their offense and made big plays when we needed them, and everybody else responded to those opportunities, really it sums up what our team's direction is this year."