WR Ike Hilliard caught two passes on third-and-short as the Bucs mixed it up in the second half
We now present to you a series of numbers that will tell you something you already know:
53.3%. 47.6% 92.9%
Is it clear yet? Need some context, you say?
Well, let us answer with a question: Were your Tampa Bay Buccaneers good in third-and-short situations in 2003 and 2004? Or was third-and-one the cue to start chewing your nails down to the quick? You know the answer, and now you know what those numbers represent.
In 2003, the Buccaneers converted only 53.3% of their third-down tries of three yards or less. In 2004, they even slipped below the 50/50 point. Was that a bad number? Consider that at the same time they were converting 47.6% of their third-down tries from 1-3 yards, they were making good on 52.0% of their attempts from 4-6 yards. No, that doesn't make much sense, but it's where the Bucs were with their short-yardage attack.
And 92.9% is where the Bucs stand after three games in 2005. Three games represents just under one-fifth of the season, so any conclusions one draws from today's numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the Bucs converted 30 third downs of 1-3 yards in 2004 and they've already got 13 such conversions this year, in 14 tries. It would be surprising to see that success fade away.
Here's why this is so important. The whole idea behind the Bucs' sweeping efforts to improve their running game in 2005 was to get into more manageable down-and-distance situations. Do you know how often teams convert on third downs of more than 10 yards? Last year the Bucs were good on roughly one of eight attempts from that distance, and their opponents were a little closer to one-in-seven.
When it's third-and-12, or even third-and-eight, there isn't much mystery as to what an offense is going to do. When it's second-and-six or third-and-three, the playbook suddenly opens up like Pandora's Box.
And when it's third-and-one, the options suddenly become more limited again, though usually by choice. There's nothing wrong with passing in that situation, but you have to be able to convert on the ground on most occasions in order to make the occasional pass work, and to make the offense safer.
"You have to be able to run the ball, obviously, in short-yardage and goal-line situations," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden, addressing all the benefits of a healthy rushing attack. "Then sometime the weather goes south, it surely helps to hand the ball off. We consider it a recipe for success. Generally, it's a more safe way to play offense. You don't have to pass protect, there's no chance of a tipped pass, things of that nature."
The Bucs have even scored on several third-and-shorts this year, thanks to the talents of rookie back Cadillac Williams. In Minnesota on opening day, Williams needed a single yard to ice the game on third-and-one and instead he burst through the defense for a 71-yard touchdown. The following weekend, in the home opener, the Bucs used the relatively risky tactic of handing off on third-and-goal from the three and Williams made it work by spinning out of a potential tackle at the two and extending the ball over the goal line.
Whether or not it's true, there was a perception at one point that the Bucs would do the same thing on almost every short-yardage situation: Bring in a "jumbo" lineup and pound straight ahead with Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott. And, it should be said, at times during his stellar career Alstott has been one of the league's best short-yardage back.
That perception certainly no longer applies. On Sunday in Green Bay, the Bucs faced seven third downs of three or fewer yards, and converted six of them. Here's how they did it.
1) Third-and-one, Williams run for one yard; 2) Third-and-one, Williams run for two yards; 3) Third-and-one, Williams loses one yard on a run; 4) Third-and-two, play-action pass to Alstott for four yards; 5) Third-and-one, Brian Griese QB sneak for two yards; 6) Third-and-one, slant to Ike Hilliard for eight yards; 7) Third-and-three, pass to Hilliard for six yards.
Four runs, three passes. Six successes, one failure. Best of all, there were seven short third-down opportunities. The Bucs got into that many third-and-short opportunities in a single game only three times over the 2003-04 seasons combined.
Oh, by the way, Tampa Bay also converted a third-and-14 on Sunday in Green Bay by handing off to Williams, who weaved for an incredible 16 yards, getting the Bucs out of the shadow of their own end zone. But that's another story altogether.
Still in Good Health
The Buccaneers lost a starter early in Sunday's game when free safety Dexter Jackson went down with a hamstring strain in the second quarter. As of Monday morning, Gruden was not ready to deliver a definitive report on Jackson's status, preferring to wait until Wednesday, when the team will begin its preparations for Detroit.
Still, it was what Gruden didn't say that qualified as good news on Monday. After referring to Jackson and veteran guard Matt Stinchcomb, who is still suffering from a lower back strain, the Bucs' coach had no other significant injuries to report.
So far, the Bucs are three-for-three on Monday morning report daily-doubles: Three victories and three slim injury reports.
Last week, there was some concern over Williams' sore left foot, and the rookie even wore a boot around team headquarters on Monday. Obviously, 37 carries at Lambeau tells us Williams is okay. This week, the injury attention will be on Jackson, who was replaced Sunday by second-year man Will Allen. Allen recorded two fourth-quarter interceptions to help seal the Bucs' 17-16 victory.
The Bucs had a 17-13 lead coming out of halftime in Green Bay, but they were due to receive the opening kickoff and they had moved the ball well in the second quarter. The visitors hoped to increase their lead in order to hold off the seemingly inevitable Brett Favre charge.
Instead, the Bucs wouldn't score again after the intermission, forcing the defense to hold Favre and the Packers to a single second-half field goal. The offense did play a big part in the fourth quarter, running the ball effectively to kill the clock on several occasions, but they would have preferred to pad that lead.
What happened? Penalties.
Griese had two 11-yard completions on the opening drive of the second half but the Bucs never got past their own 27 thanks to three holding penalties on that possession. More potentially damaging was a fourth-quarter sequence in which the Bucs committed a penalty on the kickoff following the Packers' field goal and then had a holding call that erased a 12-yard sweep by Williams. Those infractions forced the Bucs to punt from their own 10, which could have been disastrous.
"We had a good rhythm going in the first half," said Gruden. "We got a penalty to start the second half, followed by another one, followed by another one. It's hard to make first downs when you're way behind in the down and distance. It takes that running game theory out. You really have to throw the ball and we were able to convert some very difficult situations. But, the penalties hurt us bad and it's unfortunate because we would have had a lot more success."
In all, the Bucs committed eight penalties on the day, which was actually down from the 13 each they absorbed against Minnesota and Buffalo. However, those eight penalties cost the Bucs 103 yards, more than the 99 they were penalized against the Vikings and Bills. Several of those flags came on kickoff returns, which have been a problem for the Buccaneers.
"Penalties and kickoff return, that's where a lot of fouls have shown up," said Gruden. "It's not been good; it's not been very good at all. The penalties have hurt us and our execution hasn't been nearly what it was a year ago. We have to get that thing going."