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Football Outsiders Q&A on the Buccaneers: Josh Freeman, rookie cornerbacks and blitzing

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were awful at blitzing, Josh Freeman's career is weird, and relying on Johnthan Banks is probably a bad idea. That and more!

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders was gracious enough to answer some questions on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and every other NFL team) for SB Nation. They've just released their outstanding Almanac (go buy it here!) and gave us the opportunity for some Q&A. Five questions and answers you can find below! We talk about the defensive splits, rookie cornerbacks, Josh Freeman (of course), blitzing and more!

1) The Buccaneers had one of the best run defenses ever, but their pass defense was atrocious. How common are those kinds of splits, and do they say anything about the 2013 defense?

From 1991 to 2011, only 35 teams finished in the top ten in our run defense rankings, but the bottom ten in pass defense. Not surprisingly, 31 of those teams had a better pass defense the following season. On the flip side, 25 teams declined in run defense. On average, those changes tended to counteract each other, and for most teams the overall defensive improvement was slight. There are exceptions, though, most notably the 1999-2000 Tennessee Titans. In 1999 (their Super Bowl year, surprisingly), we ranked them 20th in overall defense, 25th against the pass, seventh against the rush. The following year, we ranked them first overall, second against both run and pass.

2) The Bucs will be relying on Johnthan Banks to play a big role at cornerback. Do you have any data on rookie cornerbacks (especially second-rounders)?

We have compiled data on first-rounders, and it's pretty fugly. Between 2005 and 2011, nine rookie cornerbacks started at least ten games. On passes where they were the primary defender in coverage, they had a Success Rate (including incompletions, interceptions, and short completions) of 47 percent, and allowed 8.5 yards per pass. To put those numbers into perspective, they would have failed to make the top 60 cornerbacks in either category last season, and we only charted 87 corners with at least 40 targets.
We've never looked specifically at second-rounders, but it stands to reason that they are second-rounders for a reason. There are exceptions to every rule, but expectations for Banks should be very, very low in 2013.

3) You note Freeman was one of the best quarterbacks under pressure, but the difference between his performance with and without pressure was still pretty big. Can you place it into context with the data of some of the worst quarterbacks under pressure?

There's something very weird going on with Freeman's pressure statistics. Our numbers say that Freeman is very good under pressure, compared to the average quarterback. Ron Jaworski of ESPN has said that Freeman's numbers were very bad, although when we checked back in with ESPN, they gave us numbers that were more in line with our rankings. The whole mess (along with pressure numbers for every QB in the league) was covered in great detail on Monday by Danny Tuccitto on our site, but the relevant fact is this: According to our numbers, Freeman has ranked among the top ten quarterbacks under pressure three times in the last four seasons. Every quarterback plays worse under pressure (I mean, duh), but the only passers with smaller drop-offs than Freeman last year were Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger.

The worst quarterback under pressure last year was Mark Sanchez, followed by Matt Hasselbeck, Philip Rivers, Ryan Lindley, and John Skelton. Rivers had the biggest dropoff from non-pressure plays to pressure, followed by Sanchez, Hasselbeck, Drew Brees (!), and Alex Smith.

(Editor's note: Football Outsiders has since done some more digging, and we have our take on that data here).

4) Do you have any views on the future of Josh Freeman? He's been very up-and-down even in DVOA over the years, and the Football Outsiders metrics didn't much like him. What are the odds he'll perform better this year?

On one hand, four seasons of quarterback play is usually enough to get a good idea on what a guy has to offer. On the other hand, Freeman is one of the youngest four-year vets you'll ever find. He's younger than Colin Kaepernick or Andy Dalton, less than a month older than Matt Stafford, and less than a year older than 2012 rookies Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill. He still has plenty of time to develop, and his career numbers so far suggest a young Eli Manning. That's a best-case scenario, though. More likely, Freeman stays more or less where he is: A bad starter, one of the best 32 quarterbacks on the planet, but not among the top ten or 15.

5) Casual observation suggests the Bucs struggled in part because of blitzes. Was there a big difference in defensive performance between the team's three- and four-man rushes, and the team's blitzes?

Lord, yes. The average team last year gave up about 6.5 yards per pass, give or take a couple of inches, no matter how many pass rushers they used. Tampa Bay's numbers, of course, were worse than that. They surrendered 7.2 yards per play with three or four rushers, and 7.5 yards per play with exactly five rushers. When they big blitzed with six or more rushers, though, they got burned for 10.0 yards per play. Only Philadelphia and Detroit were worse when big blitzing, and only by tiny margins. All told, the Bucs gave 8.7 yards per play when rushing five or more, second-worst behind New Orleans. (The Saints were actually worse by more than a full yard per play, if you can imagine such a thing.) And to make the worst of a bad situation, the Bucs were big blitz happy. They rushed five about as often as the average team, but they rushed six or more 14 percent of the time. Only Houston, Oakland, and St. Louis big blitzed more often.

You can buy the Football Outsiders Almanac at their website. Go do so. It's filled with interesting writing, analysis and statistics on every team in the NFL.

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