Quick reactions by defensive backs like S Will Allen helped the Bucs' defense rank first in third-down defense during the preseason
Earlier in the week, Buccaneers.com broke down some impressive defensive statistics the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had posted through three preseason games.
With the club's final tune-up game in the books, a 16-6 victory over the Houston Texans, those defensive figures, along with some stellar offensive numbers as well, still hold up. Even after sending out a lineup comprised of reserves for the full 60 minutes in Houston, the Bucs finished up the preseason with some outstanding statistical success.
Granted, these numbers mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Once the whistle blows and the ball is kicked off in New Orleans next Sunday, preseason records and statistics go out the window and the truly meaningful numbers begin to pile up.
But there were certainly some areas in which the Bucs excelled through four preseason games, and if they lead to the same sort of success in the regular season, the team will be in good shape.
Any given win or loss in the NFL can often be broken down into a handful of very specific moments. Coaches harp on penalties because, often, they are the center of those key moments.
If the preseason is any indication, the Bucs could be in for a relatively mistake-free season. The Bucs finished tied for second in the league in fewest penalties through the four preseason games, perhaps not surprising given that they finished 10th in that category in 2007.
What makes that number even more intriguing is that the preseason is usually rife with mistakes as teams try to work in young players still struggling to grasp new playbooks. But top to bottom, the Bucs' roster showed an outstanding ability to avoid mental mistakes and costly yellow flags.
The Bucs tied with the New York Giants for No. 2 overall in the category with 15 penalties, and only the San Diego Chargers finished with fewer flags (10).
First Downs, Third Downs, Time of Possession
These three categories go hand-in-hand.
Moving the chains on offense while limiting the opposition's ability to do so, converting on third downs but forcing punts from the other team and holding onto the ball and controlling the clock are inextricably linked.
They are all usually indicators of a winning team, as well.
The Buccaneers finished the preseason second in the league in first downs gained per game on offense (21.2) and led the league in fewest first downs allowed on defense (10.8 per game).
On third down, the Bucs were extremely successful on both sides of the ball. The offense led the league in conversion percentage (52), the only team in the league to finish over 50 percent. Meanwhile, the defense was able to get off the field at a better rate than any other team in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert only 27 percent of their third-down opportunities.
Keeping the sticks moving on offense while forcing quick three-and-outs on defense usually means a team will be in control of the ball, and the clock. And surprise, surprise – the Bucs led the NFL in time of possession through four preseason games, holding onto the ball for an average of 35:36 per game.
As has been said, these numbers are relatively meaningless, but still very promising. Should the Bucs be able to carry this kind of success over into the regular season, they could very well find themselves with an excellent chance to dictate game tempo on Sundays.
Offense, Defense and Special Teams
Earlier this week, we analyzed the Bucs' defensive performance through three games. But after a defense comprised entirely of reserves limited the Texans to just six points, very little changed ranking-wise.
The Bucs finished the preseason as the No. 1-ranked overall defensive unit, allowing opposing offenses to gain just 192 yards of total offense on average.
To compare just how dominating that figure is, the No. 2 team, the Miami Dolphins, finished nearly 28 yards behind the Bucs at 219.5 yards per game.
Breaking that overall average down even further, the Bucs finished first against the run and third against the pass. The Tampa Bay defense permitted opposing runners an average of only 53.8 yards per game on the ground and only 138.2 yards per game through the air.
Considering that the starting group played for only a small portion of the overall snaps throughout the preseason, it's exciting to consider how strong the Bucs' defense could be, top to bottom, once the regular season begins.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs posted some promising figures as well. Despite having starting quarterback Jeff Garcia on the field for only three series against Jacksonville and going the entire preseason without No. 1 wideout Joey Galloway, the Bucs still finished with the 12th overall offense at 310.5 yards per game.
And even though kicker Matt Bryant struggled with his field goals, the Bucs still finished 11th in the league in points per game with 19.2.
Furthermore, there were some exciting developments in the return game. The Bucs drafted wide receiver Dexter Jackson in the second round to provide a boost to the return game, and he did just that.
Highlighted by Jackson's 83-yard punt return for a score in the finale against Houston, the Bucs finished second in the league in punt return average at 16.9 and were one of only seven teams to reach the end zone on a punt return.
Still Room for Improvement
These preseason facts and figures may bear little meaning on what ends up transpiring in the regular season, but are still interesting to analyze nonetheless. The Bucs clearly did some good things in many aspects of the game through their four tune-up contests, but there were also some areas in need of improvement.
As mentioned above, Bryant struggled in the field goal department after a stellar training camp. Bryant made only seven of 12 field goal attempts, leaving the Bucs 31st in the league at only 58 percent.
Furthermore, despite Jackson's boost to the punt return game, the Bucs still have some work to do on kick returns. That unit finished dead last in the league in the preseason, averaging only 19.1 yards per return.
And while creating turnovers on defense and limiting them on offense has long been a point of focus in Tampa, the Bucs finished 20th in the league with a -1 turnover differential.
But overall, a 3-1 preseason record, a relatively healthy, deep roster and a handful of outstanding statistical finishes can certainly leave Buccaneers faithful excited for the regular season.
Come Sunday, September 7 in New Orleans, we'll find out if the Bucs can put up the same kind of numbers when they count.