The NFL generates a massive amount of online media coverage, a share of which is devoted to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even the most avid Buccaneer fans might not catch everything that's out there.
That is why we will be taking a weekly look around the web to gather some of the analysis you might have missed. We'll also provide our own take on a handful of those articles; we will "read and react," if you will.
The pieces that caught our interest this week include several that revolve around second-year running back Doug Martin – will he have a sophomore slump? what is the best formation for him to run out of? – as well a "pressure index" on NationalFootballPost.com.
- Which star will hit a sophomore slump? Various analysts, NFL.com
Seven different NFL.com contributors debate which star rookie from 2012 is most likely to see his output decline this season. As one would expect, much of the debate centers on the quarterbacks (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson) and running backs (Doug Martin, Russell Wilson) who made the '12 rookie class one of the most impactful in a long time. In fact, those five, plus linebackers Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner (but not, strangely, Lavonte David) are listed as candidates for the debate in the intro.
Also not surprisingly, most of the analysts focus on Griffin in particular, due to his injury situation, or the quarterbacks in general, because that position is always more ripe for a sophomore slump…or at least a perceived one. Cam Newton threw for nearly 3,900 yards and had a higher passer rating in 2012 than he did in 2011, but his 35 combined touchdowns as a rookie had set the bar awfully high, and some considered his follow-up a "slump." Griffin, Luck and Wilson similarly set their own bars very high last year.
One of the analysts does choose Martin as his sophomore slump candidate, however. Buccaneer readers shouldn't panic too much. The very sharp Elliot Harrison may have gone in a different direction from his seven colleagues (five go for quarterbacks and one for "none of the above") but he doesn't come down too hard on the Buccaneer back. You could characterize Harrison's position as uncertainty rather than a full-on slump prediction. "This is not to disparage Martin, who is a special player;" writes Harrison, "rather, I'm simply wondering aloud if he can do it, year in and year out, at his rookie pace."
Harrison's argument is essentially three-fold. 1) Martin won't be "sneaking up" on anybody this year; 2) The Bucs' offensive line is good but not a powerhouse; and 3) The Bucs play a tougher schedule this year, trading in the AFC West (and especially Oakland) for the AFC East.
The first point is a little too intangible to argue. It's hard to quantify how much being an unknown helped Martin last year; it's not as if he was introducing an unfamiliar scheme like the read-option. He was running within a typical offensive framework, just doing it well. In addition, he was just as strong, or more so, in the second half of last season, after surely the rest of the league had caught wind of his abilities.
We won't argue whether Harrison is right about the Bucs' offensive line not being a powerhouse. However, there's certainly reason to believe it will be BETTER than it was a year ago. Davin Joseph missed the whole season and Carl Nicks was gone after seven games, missing even Martin's explosion in Oakland. That might be the best guard tandem in the NFL, and it should be back this year, making that line quite a bit better. Maybe even making it into a powerhouse.
As for the third point, the AFC East definitely has a better reputation than the AFC West, but how much of that is due to one team, the New England Patriots? How strong have the Bills, Jets and Dolphins been in recent years. Last year, the two divisions were very similar in the standings, with one team dominating and the other three all under .500. The Denver Broncos, in fact, had the AFC's best record at 13-3, while the Patriots were 12-4.
More specifically, the rush defenses in the West were better overall than in the East. Two of the five best rush defenses in the league resided in the AFC West last year, and since the Bucs were #1 in that category, that means they faced half of the best four run defenses they could. Denver ranked second and the San Diego Chargers were fifth, while Oakland (20) and Kansas City (25) rounded out the division. In the East, The Patriots were sixth, the Dolphins 10th, the Jets 21st and the Bills 30th. One could definitely make the argument that Martin is facing an easier line of defenses this year.
Again, Harrison isn't at all disparaging of Martin, and part of his reasoning also includes that "set the bar very high" issue mentioned above. Still, there are some very real reasons we can be optimistic that Martin will actually go in the other direction.
- 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs, Mike Ridley, FootballOutsiders.com
You will see Football Outsiders referenced more often when our "Football Geekery" column returns during the season, thanks to its deep well of statistical analysis. We wanted to bring this particular article to your attention, however, because the numbers for the Buccaneers are particularly interesting.
Essentially, the article is a chart that indicates a team's success in plays in which there was one running back in the formation and plays in which there were two or more running backs in the formation, plus some added analysis of the number in the chart. Using Football Outsider's own catch-all measurement for success called DVOA (read about it here if you want, but just know that higher numbers are better), the chart compares the two numbers to show which type of formation was more successful for each team. It also includes columns indicating how often each team used each type of formation.
The interesting part for the Buccaneers is that they were significantly more successful in two-back sets. DVOA is presented in percentages, and the Bucs' had a -22.3% DVOA in one-back sets and a 9.1% DVOA in two-back sets. That difference of 31.3% is the fifth-widest gap for any team between the two categories. In terms of how much better the Bucs were in two-back than one-back plays, that difference is the second-biggest gap in the league behind Minnesota and, primarily, Adrian Peterson.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers also chose to use the two-back sets on almost exactly two-thirds of their plays, which seems like good strategy. The Buccaneers and Vikings were two of the five teams that ran out of two-back sets at least 65% of the time.
We don't really have anything to quibble about in the FO article (after all, the author is basically presenting the numbers and explaining), rather our reaction is one of interest. The article brings up the gap for Minnesota and seems to give some credit to All-Pro fullback Jerome Felton, who was just added to the Vikings' squad last year. Does this indicate that Erik Lorig, the Bucs' fullback, had a strong year, as well? That seems like a solid inference.
Does this also indicate that the Bucs could use an improvement in play from their third-down back, whether that is Doug Martin staying in for that down or another runner taking his place? The team will definitely be making a change in that role, with D.J. Ware departing and the likes of Brian Leonard and Mike James vying for playing time. The final reaction is simply a guess that the Buccaneers will continue to feature two-back alignments quite a bit in 2013.
- The pressure index, Joe Fortenbaugh, NationalFootballPost.com
Fortenbaugh's contention is that all NFL front offices are constantly under serious pressure, but 12 teams this year will be feeling it most intensely. The Buccaneers come in at #6 on his list.
Each team on the list is given a paragraph of analysis followed by a "What must be accomplished" summary. Fortenbaugh has two accomplishments on the Bucs' list – play .500 or better ball in November and December and finish in the top 10 of the NFL's pass defense rankings.
Given what unfolded last year with the Buccaneers, when a promising 5-2 start slid into a 7-9 finish and the pass defense emerged as the team's main weakness, these seem like two very reasonable targets for Fortenbaugh to supply. Fortenbaugh's last line in his paragraph of analysis seems like a bit of a cheap shot – "It's time for the opposition to worry about a matchup with the Bucs, not laugh" – but his premise is sound. The Bucs have not been shy about adding big contracts through free agency and the trade market over the last two offseasons, and that has brought more attention on the team. If added attention equals added pressure, than the Bucs definitely belong on this list.
Again, it's not likely that opponents were laughing at the Bucs last year (or taking them lightly, as Fortenbaugh almost surely means in a more literal sense). They beat two eventual playoff teams and lost six of their nine games by one score. But they did fail to get the wins they needed after putting themselves in position to make a playoff run at midseason, and that does need to change.
Three of the five teams ranked higher on Fortenbaugh's list – that is, deemed to have successfully more pressure on them – were playoff squads last year. The writer's notion for Atlanta, Houston and Denver is that just making it to the postseason isn't good enough anymore, they must take another stop to at least the conference championship game. Only Dallas and Detroit rank higher than the Buccaneers among the teams that were not in the playoffs last year.
A few other recent links for Bucs fans:
- In the NFC South blog on ESPN.com, division guru Pat Yasinskas runs down the biggest "offseason regret" for each team. For the Bucs, he says, it's not addressing the tight end position more aggressively. Oh, and Yasinskas is continuing his countdown of the top 25 players in the NFC South, reaching No. 6 as of Friday morning. As we speculated last week when the list had reached #11, Bucs RB Doug Martin was indeed among the top 10, coming in at #7. Will Darrelle Revis be in the top five?
- Gearing up for fantasy football yet? NFL.com Fantasy Editor Michael Fabiano provides a list of the "handcuff" running back options for the starter on each of the 32 teams. You might be surprised at the order in which Fabiano lists the Bucs' choices.
- Some of the content on Yahoo.com's sports section comes from a "contributor network," so make of those articles what you will. Here, contributor Jeff Briscoe runs down five additions to the Bucs' offense in 2013 and the role each one may carve out this year.