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Third down performance epitomised the Bucs' terrible showing

Sunday's season-opening humiliation at the hands of the Tennessee Titans poured a bucket of cold water on an off-season of hype, and while there's still plenty of time to turn the season around, there's no clearer indication of how far the Bucs - and Winston - have to go than the team's performance on third down. Yet the key to fixing third down isn't hard to find...

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Winston's a bust, Lovie can't survive in the modern NFL, the 2015 season is as good as over, the sky is falling and it's only Week One. The mood of the Bucs' fanbase is lower after a season opener as it has been in the Glazer era, and while there is clearly some ludicrously over-the-top statements of doom and gloom being spouted by some of the pewter faithful, there's just no sugar-coating Sunday's game: the Bucs sucked.

But as painful as the Titans' game was, there will have been cause for some optimism, which will no doubt become clearer on rewatching the game tape. Still, looking through the stats, there's a lot of reason to be concerned too - especially the third down stats.

The third down conversion rate as a raw statistic is already pretty unflattering to the Bucs - allowing the Titans to convert 4-of-9 third downs (44%) while only managing to convert 3-of-14 (21%) of their own third downs; but when you dig a little deeper, the third down stats can tell us even more about what the Bucs need to fix urgently.

Firstly, those third down conversion numbers aren't necessarily accurate, thanks to two Bucs penalties. The Titans may have converted four of their conversion attempts, but on a fifth attempt, a DPI penalty by Alterraun Verner gave the Titans an automatic first down. Likewise, the Bucs would have had a fourth successful third down conversion, on a 9-yard completion by Jameis Winston to Charles Sims, but it was negated by an illegal formation penalty. In reality, then, the Bucs' D actually allowed 5-of-9 conversions (55%), while only managing 3-of-15, or 20%.

Let's look further at the Bucs' defensive third down performance. In the Titans' five third-down attempts in the first half, they ran the ball only once, on 3rd & 28 on their own 2-yard line - clearly an attempt to get in better position for their punter than a genuine attempt to convert. Instead, when the Titans were going for the conversion, the Bucs' simply had no answer in the first half.

Two of the third-down attempts in the first half were on goal-to-go situations - and the Bucs allowed Mariota to find receivers in the end zone on both occasions. The other two attempts - coming on 3rd & 10 and 3rd & 6 - saw Mariota completing 22-yard passes each time. When the Bucs finally did stop Mariota on third down, it was on an incompletion that was caused by Verner's pass interference (which, in his defense, did stop what would have been another touchdown). The only 'good' stop by the Bucs on Mariota was his final dropback attempt of the day, when the Bucs picked up their lone sack of the game.

Once Mariota was out the game, the Titans chose to run on the remaining third-down attempts - which the Bucs did have some success on, causing and recovering a fumble on one and allowing no-gain on the other. Still, this was long after the game was lost, and the D can't claim too much credit. In all, the defense allowed Mariota to complete 4-of-6 passes on third down (all conversions) for two touchdowns, with one incompletion (that drew a DPI penalty) and a sack.

As bad as the Bucs' D did on third down, their O did as bad, if not worse. The Bucs only ran on two of their 15 third-down attempts, one of which - on 3rd & 11 on their own goal line - was about setting up better position to punt on fourth down (the other came on 3rd & 1, and was one of the Bucs' three successful conversions). Of the other two successful conversions, one was Winston's first TD to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, which was in a goal-to-go situation on the Titans' 5, and the other was one of Winston's longest throws of the night, when he found ASJ for a 35-yard gain. The rest of the conversion attempts were pretty ugly.

Winston actually completed passes on six of his thirteen third-down dropbacks, with three of them getting enough yardage to convert (even if one of them was then brought back by penalty). On the other three completions, two of them came just one-yard short of converting, with the final one being a desperation throw with pressure in his face. Winston also scrambled twice on third down, one in a 3rd & 2 situation, and the other more optimistically on 3rd & 12; in both cases, he failed to convert, getting 1 and 3 yards respectively. The other ugly feature of Winston's third-down troubles - both of his interceptions came on the 'money down'. In total, Winston went 6-of-13 (for what would have been three conversions), with 1 TD, two interceptions and two scrambles which were both short.

The third down performance in many ways summed up the game: the Bucs' defense has no answers for Mariota until it was far too late to make a difference, whereas the offense put everything on Winston's shoulders, and he proved woefully unprepared to handle the task.

The other telling thing about third downs, of course, is what they tell you about the other downs. Specifically, the average third-down distance that both teams faced shows that the Bucs were already handicapping themselves before they even got to that most important down: on average, the Titans needed 8.6 yards to convert a third down, whereas the Bucs needed 9.7 yards to do the same.

Worse than that, both teams had one exceedingly long third-down distance that skewed the averages - the Titans a 3rd & 28 situations, the Bucs a 3rd & 42. Even if we remove these extreme third-down distances, the Titans were in a significantly better situation - on average needing just 6.1 yards for a first down, but the Bucs still needed and average of 7.4 yards to convert a third down.

So why did the Bucs end up with further to go on third down than the Titans? The answer, I think, lies in the run-pass balance that the two teams employed before they got to third down. On first and second down, the Titans called a total of 28 run plays, and just 13 pass plays, taking the pressure off of Mariota (23 of those 28 run plays game when Mariota was still in the game). On the other hand, on first and second down, the Bucs called just 18 run plays, but 25 passes.

This run/pass balance is even more starkly different when we look at first down alone: the Titans ran 18 times on first down, and passed just seven times. The Bucs, however, ran 11 times on first down, but passed 13 times. It's not too difficult to see where the issue lies - if you throw an incomplete pass on first down, you're now facing 2nd-and-10, which is only going to inevitably lead to a longer third down situation.

The Bucs saw that time-and-time again Sunday, with Winston going just 5-for-13 on first down. This appeared to have led the team to be more desperate on second down - throwing twelve times and rushing only seven times - and then on to the inevitable longer third down. The Titans' approach - going for shorter gains on first down on the ground, giving them more favourable options on second down - not only helped their third down distance, but also contributed to them facing less third downs in total.

The lesson, then, is clear: the Bucs' offense need to start putting Winston in a better position by not putting the onus on him so often on first down, while the defense needs to do all they can to minimise first-down yardage. It might sound simple, and obvious, and very much "Football 101", but the stats bear it out: when you fail to move the ball on first-down, or let the other team get first-down yards on you, then by the time third-down comes around - the 'money down', the down that offensive and defensive coordinators put so much emphasis on at training - you will have put yourself in a position to fail.

So please, Dirk Koetter, give Winston easy dinks-and-dunks on first down, or use the rejuvenated Doug Martin you fought so hard to keep on the team; please, Lovie, please, Leslie Frazier, treat first down as importantly as third down when it comes to giving yardage to your opponents. Because if you won't, then Sunday's awful third down performance will be seen over and over again until you find yourselves out of a job and the Bucs find themselves starting from square one for the fourth time in seven years.