Nine games into the 2010 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were among the NFL leaders with a turnover ratio of 5. Five weeks later, that number has improved to 8 and the Buccaneers are still sixth-best in the league in that category.
That's obviously a positive progression, but closer inspection reveals that it has been a bit one-sided. Tampa Bay has remained one of the NFL's best takeaway/giveaway during the playoff stretch mostly because the offense – and in particular Josh Freeman – has done an outstanding job of protecting the football.
On defense, the Buccaneers' early-season rush of takeaways has slowed down in the second half of the season. Tampa Bay's defense produced 18 turnovers through the first seven games of the season but just six over the next seven outings (plus one on special teams). The Bucs have still been quite good at converting turnovers into points – those seven takeaways led to three touchdowns and three field goals – but there simply have been fewer instances of what Head Coach Raheem Morris calls "instant offense."
Some of that is simply a matter of luck, as is always the case with turnovers. Turnovers can be the product of an unintentional helmet-on-football collision or a badly overthrown ball that goes directly to a safety. But there is a reason that some teams are better at taking the ball away than others.
"I always tell the guys plays happen when technique and opportunity meet," said Morris. "We have to be technically sound, the opportunity has to present itself and then we have to cash in and make the play. We've got to find a way to catch those balls and cause those fumbles, do whatever we need to do to get the ball back."
The Buccaneers are 6-2 this season when they finish the game with a positive turnover ration, and just 2-4 when it's even or in the opponent's favor. Over the last two games, both of which went down to wire, the Bucs have had a handful of interception opportunities but have failed to hang on, with the only turnover in that span coming on a fumbled kickoff return. A few more takeaways and the Bucs very likely would have won more easily in Washington and avoided the overtime loss to Detroit.
Now the Buccaneers need to win their last two games to have a shot at the playoffs, and it may come down to the defense rediscovering its nose for the football. Morris stressed that point to his team earlier in the week.
"I talked about the missed opportunities that we had in one of the games," he said. "It was kind of the focal point. That's what we can't do. The things we do talk about when we talk about stats are scoring and getting the ball back. We've got to be able to generate turnovers to win those games. We've had too many missed opportunities in the last couple weeks. That's what we've been lacking here lately. We've gotten away from being the opportunistic defense that we had been earlier in the season."
On Sunday, the Buccaneers will face a Seattle team that ranks 30th in the NFL in turnover ratio (-9) and 28th in overall giveaways (30). Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has thrown eight interceptions in the Seahawks' last three games and the team has also lost two fumbles in that span. That would suggest the Buccaneers will be presented with some turnover chances in Week 16; hopefully, they can intersect those opportunities with technique and recapture their early-season form.
Stronger in the Middle
Running back Marshawn Lynch, acquired by the Seahawks in October trade with the Buffalo Bills, is finishing his first half-season in Seattle strong. Lynch has scored four touchdowns over the past three weeks and rushed for a total of 172 yards, including 60 on just 12 carries last Sunday against Atlanta's strong run defense.
Seattle's running game has not been particularly effective in 2010, averaging just 85.2 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry, but the Detroit Lions brought similar stats into last Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium and left with 181 ground yards. The combination of Lynch's emergence and the Bucs' late-season lineup changes up front makes the Seattle running back one of Tampa Bay's biggest concerns this weekend.
"Marshawn was a very dynamic player coming out of college," said Morris. "He came into the league, had dynamic stats as a rookie. He presents that Blount-like factor for them, that extra yardage after contact, running hard, constant leg drive, constant effort. That's going to be tough to deal with. We've got to go out there and tackle. Big men have to tackle big men, and big men have to show up big versus this kind of guy."
The "big men" in question are primarily defensive tackles Roy Miller, Al Woods and Frank Okam. While Miller has started every game in 2010, his second NFL season, Okam and Woods have just recently become significant parts of the defensive tackle rotation thanks to the season-ending injury suffered by Gerald McCoy. With both McCoy and fellow highly-rated rookie Brian Price on injured reserve, the Bucs have been forced to test out their depth, much of which has been acquired by midseason free agency signings. Okam and Woods have shown their inexperience since the lineup shuffling began, but they have also shown Morris a lot of potential.
"I expect Frank Okam to be better this week," said the coach. "He was decent last week but I expect him to be better this week. I expect Al Woods to get a little more playing time and be better this week. I expect Roy to go in there and be better this week and do some different things as well. Mike Bennett provides a spark when he goes inside to play a little three-technique. Really, we are what we are at this point and we've got to go out there and get better.
"The thing about it, the beauty of it, is that those guys are first-year players, second-year players and third-year players and they've got no choice but to get better with more playing time and more repetition and more practice reps. In practice, they're getting all the full-time reps now. You're talking about a bunch of guys who went from two or three reps at practice a day to going out there and getting 30 to 40 reps in the game. We'll see improvement just from those guys going out there and practicing and preparing and playing every day."
Lee, Stroughter Questionable
Two Buccaneers will have to wait until Sunday to find out if they are going to be healthy enough to play against the Seahawks.
Starting right tackle James Lee and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter have been tabbed as "questionable" for Sunday's game due to ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively. Neither practiced on Friday, and in fact Stroughter has not participated in any of the team's workouts this week. Lee was on the field in a limited fashion on Wednesday but has since been sidelined.
If Lee cannot play, Jeremy Trueblood will step back in at right tackle, where he had started 67 consecutive games until sustaining a knee injury in Week Seven. Stroughter is not a starter on the Bucs' offense but he plays a significant number of snaps, especially in the third-down situations that have proved to be his specialty over his first two seasons. If he is unavailable, the team would likely turn to Micheal Spurlock to handle more snaps and potentially get rookies Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe into the mix.
Three other Buccaneers are listed on the injury report as probable for Sunday's game: cornerback Myron Lewis (hip), linebacker Dekoda Watson (ankle) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). All three practiced fully on Friday.
The Seahawks will be without defensive tackle Junior Siavii, who was placed on injured reserve on Thursday due to the neck injury he sustained against Atlanta. In addition, cornerback Marcus Trufant sat out Seattle's practices on both Wednesday and Thursday.