Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Third Down's a Winning Edge for Bucs

Football Geekery: The Bucs have the best differential between their own success on third downs and their opponents' success, and that's usually the mark of a playoff team…And more.

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Last November, thanks to a response regarding his approach to game-planning, Dirk Koetter was briefly labeled as an "anti-analytics" coach. When it comes to drawing up his play sheet for a specific opponent, Koetter values breaking down tape of that opponent over studying a page of team statistics.

In reality – and has gradually become clear over his two seasons with the Buccaneers, first as offensive coordinator and now as head coach – Koetter uses statistical analysis as much as any coach. Perhaps more than some. In particular, he has studied and distilled the factors that are most correlated with winning and regularly presents his team with a list of statistical goals before a game.

Pictures of the Top 10 Seahawks in Week 11, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.

The distinction, as is always the case with statistics, is how they are wielded. Numbers can be illuminating, even predictive. For Koetter, they will never take the place of the scouting he can do with his own eyes, but they can assist in that process.

That's our goal with Football Geekery.  Each week, we're going to give you a sampling of statistical and/or historical analysis, hopefully in a way that is relevant to the Buccaneers' current state of affairs.  This week, we follow up an earlier note about the Bucs' league-best differential between offensive and defensive third down rates and what that stat has meant for teams in the past. We also discuss the Bucs' success in the intermediate passing range and identify a feat the team could pull off for the first time, essentially, with a win over Seattle.

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1. Third Down's a Charm

Last Sunday, in a 19-17 win at Kansas City, the Buccaneers offense converted on 11 of 16 third-down tries, a success rate of 68.8% that was the third best the team has ever posted in a single game. Over the last three weeks, Tampa Bay has converted on a remarkable 60% of their third-down tries.

As we noted on Monday, the Buccaneers currently have the best differential in the league between their third down rates on offense and defense. Tampa Bay's offense is converting third downs at a 45.4% rate while its defense is allowing conversion only 35.8% of the time. That's a differential of 9.6 percentage points, which is well ahead of second-place Tennessee (8.6).

That third-down prowess has often been a significant factor in Buccaneer victories. It certainly was last Sunday as Jameis Winston and the offense extended every drive until their last one into Chiefs territory, creating five different scoring opportunities. On the other side of the ball, the Buccaneers were able to pull away in what had been a close game against Chicago because the defense allowed only two of 11 third-down conversions.

If the Buccaneers can remain on top of the league in that third-down differential category, it may bode well for their chances in the playoff race. Statspass has NFL third-down rankings back through the 1995 season, giving us 21 seasons of evidence prior to 2016. Of the 21 teams that have led the league in turnover differential, 18 have made the playoffs. Moreover, all but five of them finished with at least 11 victories. The Buccaneers would have to run the table to match that, which is a tall task, but their work on third down has obviously been a strength this year and one that should help them down the stretch.

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Only two of those 21 teams finished under .500, and none had fewer than seven wins. Combined, they averaged just under 12 victories a season and a .731 winning percentage.

In many of those seasons from 1995-2015, there was a small cluster of teams at the top of the third-down differential rankings, well ahead of the pack. For instance, Seattle may have had the best differential last year at 12.1 but Arizona (11.3) and Houston (10.1) weren't far behind. And all three of those teams made the playoffs.

The Bucs lead the way with a differential of 9.6 this year. Since 1995, there have been 49 teams that finished with a third-down differential of 9.0 or better. Only seven of those 49 teams failed to make the playoffs and, again, none won fewer than seven games. As a group, they averaged just under 11 wins per season.

2. Thriving in the Middle

That incredible performance on third down in Kansas City was the result of extremely sharp passing by Winston when it mattered the most (which was made possible by outstanding pass protection). Winston completed 12 of his 14 throws on third down for a total of 133 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Interestingly, nearly all of those throws were of the intermediate variety. He did connect once with wide receiver Mike Evans on gains of 32 and 21 yards and with running back Doug Martin on a 27-yard gain, but those were all on first or second down. Nine of Winston's 12 completions on third down gained between 10 and 19 yards, and none got as many as 20.

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Winston and the Buccaneers' passing game have been working this intermediate range to great effect all year. This is evident in the team's "big play" numbers, and how they compare to the rest of the league. Most notably, Tampa Bay ranks second in the league in number of completions that have gained 10 or more yards, with 130 of them. However, the Bucs are tied for 27th in number of completions that have gained 20 or more yards, with 27. Obviously, that means they've had a very high number of 10 to 19-yard passes.

In fact, no team in the league has recorded more completions in the 10 to 19-yard range than the Buccaneers this year.

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3. 700 Club

The Buccaneers have a chance to accomplish something this Sunday they've never before done in more than four decades of football.

Sort of.

Last Sunday, Tampa Bay went to Kansas City to face a 7-2 Chiefs squad, and left with a 19-17 victory. The Chiefs had a .778 winning percentage on the season coming into that game. This Sunday, the Buccaneers will welcome the 7-2-1 Seattle Seahawks to Raymond James Stadium, facing a team with a .750 winning percentage on the season.

So, have the Buccaneers ever recorded back-to-back victories against two teams that had a .700 winning percentage or better. Technically, yes?

In 1982, after a lengthy player strike gutted the middle of the season, the Buccaneers faced a 3-0 Miami team in Week 11 and won, 23-17. The next weekend, the 3-1 New Orleans Saints came to Tampa and left with a 13-10 loss. For the Bucs, those were consecutive victories against teams with 1.000 and .750 winning percentages, respectively.

And, in 1997, the Buccaneers beat a 1-0 Detroit team in Week Two and a 2-0 Minnesota squad in Week Three. Obviously, those were a pair of teams with 1.000 winning percentages at the time they faced the Buccaneers.

So, yes, the Bucs have done this before, and even this late in the season back in 1982. Of course, that was really the equivalent of the fourth and fifth weeks of a normal campaign. If the Bucs beat the Seahawks this Sunday after their Week 11 win in Kansas City, it will certainly be an accomplishment of a different kind.

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