QB Jeff Garcia has directed one of the league's most productive offenses, but things have sometimes gone awry in the red zone
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost three contests in 2008 by a total of 11 points. In other words, a touchdown and a half – spread out between those three contests, of course – are all that separate the Buccaneers from their very respectable 5-3 record and a dream-like 8-0 mark.
As frustrating as that may be to ponder, Head Coach Jon Gruden says that one area for improvement, perhaps more than any other, can help overcome such narrow defeats throughout the remainder of the season – red zone production. Had the Bucs been better in that area during their three losses, they might have secured that extra 1.5 TDs they've need.
Tampa Bay currently places 29th out of 32 NFL teams in touchdown percentage inside the red zone, the stat often used to rank the clubs in that category. On the year, the Bucs have scored a touchdown on just 35.5 percent of their 31 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Digging a little deeper, it becomes evident how important scoring points off drives that reach deep into enemy territory – and scoring touchdowns, especially – truly is. In their three losses, the Bucs scored a touchdown just twice out of the nine times they entered the red zone, a 22.2 percent conversion rate.
In their five wins, the Bucs converted their red zone forays into touchdowns on nine of 22 attempts, a 40.9 percent mark that is still mediocre by league standards, but well above the Bucs' percentage in their losses.
For whatever reason, the Bucs have simply struggled to put up points once they get close to their opponents' goal line, but it certainly isn't due to an inept offense.
At their current pace, the Bucs' averages of 341.2 total yards per game, 221 passing yards per game and 120.2 rushing yards per game would be the first-, third- and sixth-highest marks in franchise history, respectively, if kept up for the remainder of the season.
An offense that is gaining yards at a rate unlike almost any other team in club history, but one that just can't seem to gain those last few before the goal line – that's what makes the team's struggles in the red zone all the more frustrating, Head Coach Jon Gruden said at his Monday morning press conference.
"We looked at it and statistics say we're not very good at times," Gruden said. "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. There are a couple other situations throughout the year that we just haven't cashed in on. We haven't done it; we haven't gotten it done.
"As a play-caller and an offensive coach, at times you've got take responsibility for it. But we're doing some good things – 5-3. We've got a good football team, we're fighting through a lot of injuries and we've lost three games by  points. It gives me reason to believe we can have a good season. We've just got to continue to improve."
As always, and as is evident in Gruden's take on the situation, the numbers can be a bit misleading. The struggling Detroit Lions, for instance, actually lead the league in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 75 percent. However, no team has made fewer trips inside the opponents' 20 than the Lions' eight. If the Bucs had 23 fewer red zone trips than what they've been able to accomplish thus far, people would be worried about a lot more than their inside-the-20 efficiency.
In fact, to underscore the Tampa Bay offense's ability to move the ball on a consistent basis, only two teams in the NFL have crossed into the red zone more often than the Bucs.
In the end, though, it all comes down to scoring points – preferably touchdowns – and the Bucs' disappointing loss in Dallas on Sunday was a prime example of what can happen when you fail in that endeavor.
"We had some opportunities, looking at the tape, that we just didn't cash in on," Gruden said. "It's a credit to Dallas in some ways. They did a nice job of rushing the passer and mixing coverages. Obviously, they got the one score at the end of the half and we had some penalties that hurt us, but it was a hard-fought football game by two good teams, in my opinion. We just have to do a better job of finishing drives. Unfortunately, we didn't get that done yesterday.
"We had some chances. Again, I've got to do a better job of calling plays and getting guys in better position. They did a nice job of rushing the passer, not only congesting the pocket but restricting his vision. It's a tough situation to be in, but we had some opportunities. I think we'll learn from that today and hopefully the next time we're down there we'll cash in on it."
On the bright side, the Bucs' defense has proved to be one of the league's toughest red zone units. The Tampa Bay defense currently ranks fifth in the league, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 35.7 of their trips inside the 20.
The Bucs are the only team in the league that has allowed foes to score on 100 percent of their red zone forays, but most of those points have been of the field goal variety and have come very infrequently. Only one team has permitted fewer red zone possessions than the Bucs' 14, and only two teams have given up fewer red zone points than the Bucs' 63.
As impressive as the Tampa Bay defense has been in the all-important red zone category, the onus is clearly on the offense to pick up the pace.
With a tough road game in the hostile environment of Arrowhead Stadium looming, followed by the team's bye week, Gruden says the team will expend plenty of energy trying to do just that.
"We focus on the red zone more than any team I have ever been around," Gruden said. "It's not focusing on the red zone, it's about getting it done down there and we have had chances to make some plays. It's a hard place to make plays down there and it is getting harder and harder. It's not easy. We will continue to zoom in on it and try to be as creative and aggressive as we can. At the same time, we are 5-3. We feel good about our team. We are going to use the bye week to hopefully get some guys well so maybe we can get everybody out there practicing in the red zone, in the two-minute and in every facet of our attack. It has been challenging lately."
"The objective here is not statistics. We realize that we are behind the eight ball in some areas; we are also doing quite well in some others. The bottom line is we have to win. We took care of the ball from an offensive standpoint, we did some good things but we have to do better. We have to do better and we will."