FB Mike Alstott converted one third down against Minnesota but couldn't find an opening on two others
Among the many informative stat sheets produced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' communications department is a breakdown of the team's third-down success, offensively and defensively. Considering that the Bucs rank ninth in the NFL in converting third down tries and first in preventing conversions, this sheet holds a lot of impressive numbers.
Just to name a few:
· Tampa Bay's defense has allowed just 22.9% of opponents' third downs to be successful, and no team has converted more than 33.3% in a single game against the Bucs. · The Bucs' offense has converted 20 of 38 attempts from six yards or less, a fine success rate of 52.7%. · Tampa Bay's defense has allowed only five of 18 third down tries from three yards or less to gain the necessary yards, a remarkable shut-down rate of 27.8%. · The Bucs' offense, on the other hand, has converted the exact same number of tries from 11 yards or further out, 5 of 18. In most cases, that has been the work of WR Keyshawn Johnson. · Opponents have yet to convert a third down of more than 10 yards against the Buccaneers, going 0-for-16 when they need 11 or more.
But we're stalling, and you know it. The only number, third down-wise, on anyone's mind right now is the Bucs' success rate on short tries, from three yards or less.
Last year, the Bucs were 37 of 65 in that category, a 56.9% success rate. In most games, they had little difficulty, usually smashing Mike Alstott over the line for the needed yards. They did it six of seven times in nicking New Orleans, five of five while downing Detroit, four of four in order to stop Seattle. Two oh-fers, an 0-5 against Denver and an 0-4 at Oakland, hurt what was still a fine success rate.
In the first three games of this season, all Buccaneer wins, that trend continued. Tampa Bay was 11 of 18 in third down tries from one to three yards in games at New England and Detroit and at home against Chicago.
Since then, the wheels have come off.
In the last three contests, Tampa Bay is two of seven when trying to convert those short third downs (Buc opponents, by the way, are just three of eight in that span). Against Minnesota, the Bucs succeeded on seven of 13 third down tries, an excellent success rate, three times converting situations of 11 or more yards. Up close, however, they failed, going just two of four. Those two that didn't succeed were crucial.
One was a third-and-one from the Vikings' two-yard line at the end of a 19-play, 10-minute drive. Alstott tried to run off right guard and lost a yard, leading to a Buccaneer field goal. The other was near midfield in the game's final six minutes, as Alstott tried to convert a third-and-one by running left behind the Bucs' jumbo package. No gain. Tampa Bay went for it on fourth down and failed on a trick play, turning the ball over to Minnesota.
Head Coach Tony Dungy has since been asked repeatedly if the Bucs would be looking to change their approach on third down, and he seems to be giving it some thought. There is a chance that the Bucs' alterations will be a case of going back to the future.
"We've talked about it and bounced some things around," said Dungy. "One thing we can do is go back to what we've done in the past and line up in one formation where we pretty much know what we're going to get and the other team knows what we're going to run. We were pretty successful doing that at one time. That may or may not be the best way to go, but somehow we'll get it corrected."
Without a true blocking fullback to punt in front of Alstott, the Bucs had started the season using guard Randall McDaniel in the backfield on short-yardage situations. The lineup was a little different on Sunday in Minnesota, as the Bucs looked for a different kind of matchup.
"That, again, is trying to analyze what our best personnel is," said Dungy. "We've used George Hegamin at tight end and Pat Hape in the backfield at times the last couple of weeks. So again, we'll look at what gives us the best matchup and the best chance to succeed."
Dungy isn't conceding that the new personnel grouping is to blame. Rather, it comes back down to the basics for a coach who has seen this type of approach work innumerable times for the Buccaneers.
"Well, it is basically lack of execution, because we're doing some different things and trying to be a little bit varied in what we do," said Dungy. "We don't always get the look. We can't predict what we're going to get.
"That was one of the things about being predictable on offense. You could predict what you were going to get on defense and then block it accordingly. So there's some pluses and minuses to it. But I think with the communication being better (at home), we'll be in good shape. Being on the road the last two weeks in noisy places, we haven't gotten off on the snap count as well as we'd like to, some things like that. It's easier when you're at home. You can use the cadence and get them on their heels a little bit. Still, you've got to be able to make your third-and-ones."
These are the Bucs of 2000, however, and it's not likely they'll need to pull in the reins to be successful on third and short. They did convert two short third downs on that same drive that ended in Alstott's first failed run, one on a screen pass to RB Warrick Dunn and another on an Alstott plow up the middle. Against Chicago on September 10, the Bucs converted all four third-and-shorts on two Alstott runs, a Dunn run and a Shaun King bootleg. With King generally making good decisions and working hard to spread the ball among a long list of Buccaneer weapons, the team's options seem wide open.
Of course, one option is proven, and Dungy knows it: "Line up in the I formation and run the same old plays that everyone hates but that made it on third-and-one."