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Better offensive line play is the key to the Buccaneers' success

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Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Three lines for each NFL team -€” offense, defense, and special teams.

Seven on the offensive line when you include both tight ends.

Nine on the special teams line.

One line for the winner of the Super Bowl.

One line to rule them all. One line to find them.

One line to bring them all and in the playoffs bind them.

Weeks before the playoffs were to begin and days before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were to face the Dallas Cowboys in a flexed Sunday night game, I found myself tuning into Showtime's weekly NFL football program. Mind you, I rarely watch it -€” which is why the title of the show escapes me.

The four panelists on the program were discussing who would be the probable teams that would make it into the playoffs with only three games remaining on the schedule. One of the panelists, again I have no idea who this was save that it was a former NFL player, implored his theory of the potential playoff teams. His theory was whoever has the better offensive lines will make the playoffs.

The strong offensive line theory definitely struck a chord in my mind. At that juncture, I had recently written an article about the Bucs' run deficiency.  I wrote about how deficient the offensive line was in short yardage situations as well as preventing their running backs from getting stopped at the line of scrimmage or behind it in 2016 compared to 2015. There was not a significant drop in pass blocking between the past two seasons, though. Instantaneously, my mind concluded that the Bucs would probably not be a playoff team for this panelist's theory.

A list of teams was being rambled off by the author of the theory after describing who should be a playoff team. As he finished his list, the Bucs were not one of those teams. I was not shocked as I knew the Bucs did not fit the criteria for the theory. There were parts of my mind that wanted to dispute such a theory, but then I started to reflect on a couple of games this past season.

With just about everyone jumping ship after the second Atlanta game debacle, I was pretty much steadfast that the Bucs could beat the Bears the following week. Allow me to preface that I had already discovered that our offense was meek and our defense were the reasons we won convincingly against the Panthers and 49ers. The defense nearly pulled out a win against a top offense in Oakland, but after nearly playing all of overtime on defense with no offense, the defense eventually succumbed to the inevitable. This was about the time that I started doing by "By the Box" preview, where I do simple matchup comparisons of offense to defense.

My positive focus was on how the Bucs' defense would match up with the opposing offense. The individualized run and pass blocking information was gathered from Football Outsiders. The PPG stat come from ESPN.

Tampa Bay
2016 Opponents' Offense, Games 9 - 13
Game Team Offense Rank PPG Scored
Run Pass
9 Chicago 8 7 17.4 10
10 KC 17 14 24.3 17
11 Seattle 26 25 22.1 5
12 SD 23 24 25.6 21
13 NO1 1 5 29.3 11

Chicago was a terrible team. Despite the nice offensive line production, they simply could not score.

Kansas City was barely beating teams with their defense around the time the Bucs has to play them. Their luck ran out. KC By the Box.

The Seattle Seahakws were coming in hot: By the Box. They had beaten New England in their three game winning streak and scoring an average of 29.33 points per game in that same three game set before engaging the Bucs. The Seahawks' offense was non-existent against the Bucs. One important factor to note about that particular game was Seattle's starting center was injured and did not play.

San Diego's offense is a very prolific offense, but their quarterback loves to throw interceptions. Although the Chargers' offensive line ranks low, their scoring average is very high. So I would guess that the Chargers' offense receives more offensive opportunities than most teams and that could be due to their quarterback throwing interceptions. Philip Rivers threw 21 interceptions this season.  He threw two against the Bucs. One of those was a pick-6 and the other was to seal the game with an end zone interception.

After facing a top offense, the Bucs were rewarded with an even more potent offense with the SaintsBy the Box. In this preview, I noted how the Saints were missing their starting center. That is where I correlated this preview to the Seattle game, where they were missing their starting center. Results were similar such that the Saints offense was non-existent in respect to what they usually earn.

The Bucs were 8 -€” 5 before the last three games of the season. They struggled defensively in the next two games against Dallas and New Orleans. New Orleans had their starting center back for the re-match. After these consecutive losses, the probability of making the playoffs was blocked. Opposing offenses with strong offensive lines controlled the Bucs' defense, despite its valiant efforts.

Anyhow, with the playoffs completed, I decided to revisit this theory. These rankings are based on Football Outsiders' work.

2016 Season Playoffs
Offensive Line Rankings
Wild Card Round
Seed Teams Ranking Result
Run Pass
AFC 5th Oakland 11 1
6th Houston 15 12 Win
6th Miami 22 22
3rd Pittsburgh 2 4 Win
NFL 6th Detroit 31 18
3rd Seattle 26 25 Win
5th NY Giants 24 2
4th Green Bay 19 11 Win

Oakland should have won that game if we were simply looking at rankings in a vacuum. They lost because they did not have their starting quarterback. That makes a slight bit of difference in end productions.

Aside from the Oakland game, the only anomaly was the Giants and Packers game. Manning was 23/44 with 299 yards.  Rodgers was 25/40 for 362 yards. Both QBs moved the ball, but the difference comes in production. Manning threw 1 TD and Rodgers threw for 4 TDs. Also, Manning threw an interception while Rodgers had a clean sheet.

2016 Season Playoffs
Offensive Line Rankings
Divisional Round
Seed Teams Ranking Result
Run Pass
AFC 6th Houston 15 12
1st New England 9 6 Win
3rd Pittsburgh 2 4 Win
2nd Kansas City 17 14
NFL 4th Green Bay 19 11 Win
1st Dallas 5 13
3rd Seattle 26 25
2nd Atlanta 10 23 Win

In this round, every game played out according to the strong offensive line theory.

2016 Season Playoffs
Offensive Line Rankins
Conference  Round
Seed Teams Ranking Result
Run Pass
AFC 3rd Pittsburgh 2 4
1st New England 9 6 Win
NFC 4th Green Bay 19 11
2nd Atlanta 10 23 Win

In the AFC game, all I can say is, "Got Brady?"

While in the NFC game, the Packers were their own worst enemy in the first half. Here are their first half possessions in order: Missed FG (52 yards), RB Fumble (64 yards), Punt (8 yards), and Interception (3 yards). The Packers were able to rip off 21 points on the Falcons in the second half. We now know this is a bit of foreshadowing.

2016 Season Playoffs
Offensive Line Rankins
Super Bowl
Seed Teams Ranking Result
Run Pass
2nd Atlanta 10 23
1st New England 9 6 Win

Sure, the Patriots won because they have Brady, but this game is eerily similar to the Falcons-Packers Conference round playoff game. In the first half, of Atlanta's 21 first half points, 14 points came off on turnovers. Aside from two long drives on its own and one long drive after the Patriots fumble, the Falcons were forced to punt six times out of 10 offensive possessions.

Just like the Packers, the Patriots' offense was able to move the ball in the first half, but those turnovers were costly. The difference between the games is that the Patriots defense came up in the second half as well as the Falcons played into its offensive line's weakness.

In the fourth quarter, Atlanta is up 28 -€” 12 at its 36 yard line, looking at 3rd and 1. They decided to pass the ball than run. The Patriots defense forced a fumble on QB Matt Ryan 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That gave the Patriots the ball with only 25 yards to traverse for a touchdown.  Atlanta 28, New England 20.

The next offensive possession, Ryan was sacked for 12 yards on 2nd and 11 on the New England 23 yard line. A holding call on the offensive line occurred on the ensuing play. Those two plays displaced the Atlanta offense out of field goal range. The Patriots scored to tie the game after the Falcons punted the ball.  Atlanta 28, New England 28.

Essentially, those two offensive drives and the reliance upon the passing game to put the game away led to the Falcons' demise. The Falcons could not do much with about a minute left in the game in its final possession and the lost the coin flip in overtime.

Opportunistic in scoring was the name of the Falcons' offensive game. They faltered when they relied too heavily on their pass protection. The Packers game revealed that if an offense can prevent itself from shooting itself in the foot, then it can score on the Falcons and often as the Pack put up 21 points in the second half in the Conference game. New England scored 25 points in the second half against the Falcons in the Super Bowl.  In the second game against the Falcons, the Bucs put up 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, granted in garbage time.  Atlanta was ranked 27th overall in PPGA.

If you are wondering what the Bucs' offensive line rank is, then I shall provide:  Run 21st, Pass 15th. In 2015, the Bucs run blocking was ranked 9th and pass blocking was 14th. We just did not have any defense in 2015.  Here are links to articles I have written about the lines:

Finding Bucs' Top Deficiencies

The Offensive Line Needs a Boost