Turnovers may decide outcomes in the NFL, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their opponents have had to find other ways to turn the tide in recent weeks.
The Buccaneers back-to-back games against Detroit and Seattle were odd in a way that many fans may not have noticed: In both games, neither team committed a turnover.
It's not terribly unusual for one team to go a full 60 minutes without giving the ball away, especially if it has the lead and has to take fewer risks. Tampa Bay, for instance, has gone turnover-free six times this season, which has certainly delighted Head Coach Raheem Morris.
It is rarer, but not unheard-of, for both teams in one game to completely avoid turnovers. Through the first 13 games of the season, that hadn't happened to the Bucs and their opponents, but it did occur not long ago, in the 2009 season opener against Dallas.
But two straight games in which neither team let the ball slip out of their hands or threw an errant pass to the wrong-colored jersey? That's extraordinarily uncommon, at least in Buccaneer history. In fact, "uncommon" wasn't even an applicable word until these last two Sundays at Raymond James Stadium, because two straight turnover-free games by both teams had never before happened in franchise history.
Obviously, the Buccaneers would like to produce more turnovers; that was a hallmark of their early-season success and it's a bit surprising that the team has won two of its last three without a single turnover created by the defense (Adam Hayward's fumble recovery in Washington came on a kickoff). The Bucs had 18 takeaways in their first seven games, but have added just seven in eight games since.
On the other hand, however, the Buccaneers have avoided giving games away with big turnovers, for the most part. Tampa Bay has been turnover-free in four of its last six games, and only Brent Grimes' late interception for Atlanta in Week 13 was particularly hurtful. It is unexpected of the club with the NFL's youngest roster, but Tampa Bay ranks third in the NFL in fewest turnovers. The New England Patriots have stunningly given the ball away only nine times all season, the Kansas City Chiefs are second with 12 turnovers and the Bucs come in next with 17.
The poise and downfield vision of second-year quarterback Josh Freeman is obviously a major factor in the Bucs' outstanding ball security. Freeman has thrown just six interceptions all season, only once doing so twice in a game, and his interception-per-pass rate of 1.34% is threatening Jeff Garcia's 2007 record of 1.22%. Garcia did that in 327 passes; Freeman has already thrown 448. In this year's field of NFL quarterbacks, only New England's Tom Brady and Kansas City's Matt Cassel compiled a lower interception percentage.
Winning the turnover battle does, indeed, lead to victory more often than not, as suggested above. The Buccaneers, for instance, are 24-9 over the last five years when they have had a positive turnover ratio in the game. But perhaps the half of that struggle that is most important is protecting the football. The Bucs have played 26 games since the beginning of 2002 in which they did not commit a turnover, and they are close to flawless in those outings, going 22-4. Two of those four losses came in games in which neither team turned the ball over, two weeks ago against Detroit and in the 2009 season opener against Dallas.
The Bucs still have one game remaining in the regular season, and a shot to make the playoffs. Given the serious challenge of beating the defending-champion New Orleans Saints on their field this Sunday, it would help significantly if Tampa Bay's defense regained its turnover touch. Perhaps more important, however, will be keeping the Saints from doing the same.
Also Worth Noting
With no turnovers getting in the way, the Buccaneers racked up a season-high 439 yards of offense against Seattle on Sunday. After a somewhat slow start, Freeman and the Tampa Bay offense embarked on seven straight drives that produced five touchdowns, one field goal and one blocked field goal.
Meanwhile Tampa Bay's defense held Seattle to 174 yards of offense, the lowest total by a Buccaneer opponent this year. The resulting difference in total offense of 265 yards between the Bucs and the Seahawks was the largest gap in any Tampa Bay game since 2003. Here are the top five single-game differentials for the Buccaneers in the last 10 years:
- 291 yards (Buccaneers 398, Houston 107), Dec. 14, 2003
- 265 yards (Buccaneers 439, Seattle 174), Dec. 26, 2010
- 251 yards (Buccaneers 446, Minnesota 195), Oct. 28, 2001
- 240 yards (Buccaneers 421, Atlanta 181), Oct. 6, 2002
- 226 yards (Buccaneers 402, Seattle 176), Oct. 19, 2008
That's just one impressive note from a game that almost had too many of them to keep track of. Below are a few more, some of which provide interesting setups for next week's finale in New Orleans.
- Josh Freeman's 237 passing yards and five TD tosses pushed his season totals to 3,196 and 23, respectively. He also was not intercepted for the third straight game and the sixth time in his last seven outings, leaving his season total of picks at six. Barring a five-INT game at New Orleans, Freeman will join Brad Johnson as the only quarterbacks in team history to record a season with 3,000 passing yards and 20 touchdowns plus 10 or fewer interceptions. Johnson did it in 2002.
- CB Ronde Barber made the 199th start of his stellar NFL career this past Sunday. Thus, he will cap his 2010 season with his 200th start next weekend in New Orleans, the team he has victimized most often with big games. Seven of Barber's franchise-record 40 interceptions have been against the Saints, including two three-INT games. Until Aqib Talib picked off three passes against Washington last year, those two efforts were the only three-interception games in franchise history. When he starts next Sunday in New Orleans, Barber will join Derrick Brooks as the only players in franchise history to start 200 games.
- TE Kellen Winslow caught seven passes for 98 yards against the Seahawks, giving him 63 receptions on the season. That is the second-highest single-season total by a tight end in franchise annals. The only season he hasn't surpassed is his own 77-catch campaign last year, his first as a Buccaneers.
- The Bucs converted six of 11 third downs against Seattle, marking the 11th time in 15 games this season they have succeeded on 40% or more of their tries. That's rarified air for the Buccaneers of recent vintage, who haven't finished a season with a third-down rate of better than 40% since 1998. Overall, Tampa Bay is moving the chains on 42.8% of its third downs this year, the sixth-best mark in the league (New Orleans leads the NFL at 48.8%). The team record is 42/9%, set way back in 1984.
- The Bucs have been relying on rookies all season, playing at least 10 of them in each of their last 11 games. That trend reached its 2010 peak against Seattle, as a whopping 15 rookies (out of 45 total players) got into the game. Tampa Bay is the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to give starts to 10 different rookies in a season and still finish with a winning record.
Bucs Await Pro Bowl Announcement
NFL fans finished casting nearly 100 million Pro Bowl votes last Monday, completing the first step towards deciding this year's AFC and NFC all-stars.
The NFL chooses its Pro Bowl squads through a three-pronged voting process, combining the opinions of fans, players and coaches. The fan votes are used to create one composite ballot, and the same is done for the collected votes from players and coaches. Each of those composite votes counts one-third toward determining the 43-man roster for each conference. Players and coaches around the league cast their votes last Thursday and Friday.
Now it's time for the Pro Bowl teams to be revealed. The league will do that tonight on a special NFL Total Access 2011 Pro Bowl Selection Show on NFL Network, beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET.
Like most players around the league, the Bucs have Tuesday off, but many will still be eagerly awaiting the news from the evening broadcast. The burning question: Will the Bucs bounce back from their 2009 shutout – the first Pro Bowl without a Tampa Bay player since 1995 – and see some of their players return to Honolulu. After finishing 3-13 last season, Tampa Bay has raced to a 9-7 record this year, one of the league's best turnarounds of 2010. Often, success in the win-loss category increases the players' chances of getting Pro Bowl recognition.
Buccaneers.com will post a story regarding any potential Pro Bowl selections after the NFL has made its announcement on Tuesday night.