The past few weeks, we've seen this crazy statistic bandied about: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to set a record for the worst pass defense ever! They've allowed more passing yards than any other team ever! They're historically, unbelievable horrible! They need just 251 yards tomorrow to break this record! Unbelievable!
Here's what I say to that: bullshit! I've been watching some Penn and Teller lately.
Here's the problem: this team is set up to give up a lot of passing yards. But that doesn't equate the WORST PASSING DEFENSE EVER. Just a pretty bad passing defense. Yes, the Bucs give up a lot of passing yards -- but context matters, and where and how they give up those passing yards matters, too. First, they've given up a lot of yardage - but they also have 18 interceptions to show for it. That ranks sixth in the NFL. That's right: the worst pass defense in NFL history has forced more interceptions than all but five teams this year.
Here's another fact: we're in a pass-heavy era with more good quarterbacks than roamed the NFL at any point in NFL history. It's also an era that is more pass-heavy than any other ear. It is, of course, no coincidence that three of the four teams that have given up more than 4,500 passing yards in a season came into existence in the past two years. The same two years when many passers set passing yardage records for the NFL, or for their team. The Bucs are simply playing in an era with incredibly effective passers.
Some of the rate statistics would still suggest the Bucs have one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. They've certainly given up more yards per pass than almost any other team this season. And yet, the defense overall hasn't been that bad: giving up 6 yards per play is bad, but it's not horrifyingly bad.
The outstanding run defense also hurts the pass defense if you view pass defense solely through the lens of yards per attempt. The run defense gives opponents lots of third-and-longs, but those aren't actually good for your pass defense: they create lots of big passing plays on third down that gain big yards -- and still fall short of a first down. That's a success for the defense, but a failure in terms of passing yards. A good run defense allows forces opponents to pass more, of course.
See, when we go to models that actually review defensive efficiency on a down-to-down basis, we get different results. Football Outsiders has the Bucs with the 28th worst pass defense this season. Advanced NFL Stats has them around 29th to 31st this year, depending on which stat you choose. They're not even the worst pass defense in their own year, let alone the worst pass defense ever.
Yes, the Bucs absolutely must address their pass defense this offseason. Most obviously, their cornerbacks aren't good enough, their blitzes aren't nearly effective enough and their coverage concepts expose their weaknesses. They have been really, really bad. But the worst pass defense ever? Don't be silly.
So when you hear everyone bash the team's worst pass defense ever, remember that it isn't actually the worst pass defense ever. It just allowed more yards than any other team, and there's a very significant difference between the two.