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Buccaneers defense is very good at stopping big plays

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been trotting out the statistic that their defense is ranked fifth in the NFL. That sounds good, right? But the NFL's official rankings are based on total yardage, and that's a pretty terrible way to measure defensive quality. One reason the Bucs defense allows so few yards is that the offense has been one of the most turnover-prone in the NFL, giving opposing teams a short field but frequent scores -- only four defenses have faced worse average field positions. Teams can't rack up yardage if they're in the end zone, after all.

Over at the Tampa Tribune, Roy Cummings mentions an interesting statistic: the Bucs have allowed just 15 passing plays of 20 yards or more, fewer than all but four teams in the NFL. That's actually pretty good, and an indication that the Bucs' scheme is more or less working. After all, one hallmark of Lovie Smith's schemes is that they simply don't allow big plays.

The flip side of that is to limit short plays so that teams don't consistently gain first downs, either -- not unless they're perfect. Either teams have been pretty much perfect, or the Bucs have issues on defenses that make "not allowing big plays" a poor marker of the team's quality. Specifically: the team has allowed 109 first downs, which is ranked 25th in the NFL. That's pretty much horrible. Similarly, in Football Outsiders DVOA the Bucs' pass defense is ranked 24th -- though its overall defensive DVOA is 15th.

Cumming also cited the team's red zone defense: the team has allowed a touchdown on 14 of 19 opposing teams' red zone possessions, with only the Titans doing worse. That's a good indication of how the Bucs have allowed teams to beat them. Not through big plays, but by consistently allowing them to rack up short plays.

Like the infamous statistic that the Bucs have the fifth-ranked defense in total yardage, surface analysis of statistics isn't really indicative of the team's actual quality. Not allowing big plays doesn't matter much if you consistently allow teams to march down the field with shorter plays.