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Tampa Bay and third down conversions

On money downs in 2018, how did the Bucs do?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders recently completed their 2018 ALEX: Season Review. As completion percentage becomes more and more meaningless in today’s NFL, I think ALEX can fill part of that role quite nicely. In short, ALEX stands for Air Less EXpected. It measures how aggressive a quarterback is on third downs - in other words, in situations where the offense must convert to stay on the field, who throws for the first down and who checks down?

So, a quarterback who throws for nine air yards on 3rd and 8 would have an ALEX of +1 for that play, even if it fell incomplete. A quarterback who throws a two-yard screen pass on 3rd and 20 would have an ALEX of -18, regardless of whether the play converted or not. All of these plays are averaged out over the entire season. I find this useful because it tells us the difficulty of the offense, the aggressiveness of the quarterback, and who is doing the heavy lifting of the offense - the quarterback, the skill position guys, or the scheme itself?

Let’s start with the defense, who managed to do something wild. First, let’s note that ALEX for defense is backwards - a negative ALEX is a good thing. After finishing with the worst ALEX in the NFL in 2017 at +3.1 (so, opponents would on average throw 3 yards past the first down marker last season), the Bucs finished first in ALEX in 2018 with a negative -1.7. The Bucs again finished with the worst defense in the NFL by DVOA, so how is this possible?

It’s simple; they managed to get opposing offenses into the longest average yards to go on third down at 9.1. That allowed them to have the best Short % among all defenses in the NFL at 51.3 percent, which is the percentage of passes the defense forced short of the sticks. So on third downs they managed to get offenses to dump it off, and then rallied to the ball.

The problem is two-fold: the Bucs only forced 119 third downs all year, third-fewest in the NFL and 42 less than the best defense, the Chicago Bears. They were so bad on first and second downs teams only rarely even had to face third downs. Secondly, they still allowed a conversion rate of 40.3 percent, 17th in the NFL, and were generally 56.5 percent worse than an average defense on these downs considering the depth and location of the throw. To sum up, rarely could they get into the situations Mike Smith wanted, and even when they could do so, they were out of position and couldn’t tackle. Yikes.

But there’s good news on the way, hopefully:

Todd Bowles is reportedly coming to Tampa Bay as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator. Bowles’ Jets defense this year had the fifth-best conversion rate allowed and seventh-best DVOA allowed on third-down throws. The Vikings, Browns, Bears, and Ravens were the only other defenses to rank in the top seven in both stats, but none of them forced as high of an ALEX (+2.6) as the Jets (28th).

Here’s to hoping Bowles can fix what ails this defense. Note that it isn’t necessarily bad for a defense to have a high ALEX - it means you’re forcing longer, more difficult and therefore lower-percentage throws. Tampa Bay’s problem in 2017 was that they were allowing high conversion rates to go along with giving up long throws.

Now, let’s look at the quarterbacks.

Jameis Winston finished 4th with an ALEX of +3.0, and Ryan Fitzpatrick 8th with a +1.8 ALEX. Not too surprising, to be honest. Both are aggressive guys in a vertical scheme dependent on throwing the ball downfield with timing into tight windows.

True to form, no one threw short of the sticks less than Winston (22.9 percent), while Fitzpatrick clocked in at 8th fewest (33.3 percent). Winston finished 2nd in the NFL in conversion rate at 50.6 percent and 4th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at 70.9 percent. Fitzpatrick finished 9th (45.1 percent) and 10th (53.9 percent), respectively.

What Football Outsiders had to say about Winston might be the key to whether the Buccaneers succeed under new head coach Bruce Arians:

While Mahomes and Rodgers played to their reputations with ALEX, so did Josh Allen (+3.3) and Jameis Winston (+3.0). They had the two lowest Short% rates, as both love attacking deep even if they are off target more often than they should be. Allen obviously struggled too much as a rookie in Buffalo, but Winston finished second in conversion rate and fourth in DVOA. This isn’t a fluke by any means. In 2017, Winston was third in ALEX, third in conversion rate, and fifth in DVOA. He has a history of moving the chains at an elite level even on money downs, but it’s those pesky interceptions and ill-advised sacks that get him in trouble. With Bruce Arians coming to Tampa Bay, Winston’s vertical cravings should be satisfied, but it’s hard to say if he’ll get to eat any more W’s since Arians’ system that will still open him up to hits and mistakes.

We will have to wait and see how new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich does in allowing Winston to be great at what he’s great at while also cutting down on situations where Winston gets himself into trouble. Personally, I’m hoping they steal a little bit from these guys to help supplement any vertical attack:

Next, let’s give some credit to superior offensive design by the likes of Sean McVay (Rams), Frank Reich (Colts), and Sean Payton (Saints). Of the bottom 15 quarterbacks in ALEX (0.5 or lower), only Andrew Luck, Jared Goff, and Drew Brees ranked in the top 10 in conversion rate. DVOA wasn’t as kind with none ranking in the top 10, but those offenses will look to keep moving the chains on third down this weekend.

Lastly, let’s look at these ALEX conversion rates by distance. They break it up into Short (1 or 2 yards to go), medium (3 to 6 yards), and long (7+ yards to go).

In 2017 Winston finished 7th, 4th, and 4th, respectively in converting third downs - very good to elite to all levels of the field. In 2018 however, he was 26th short, 15th medium, and 1st in converting long attempts.

Fitzpatrick on the other hand, was 11th-best in converting short, 1st medium, and 34th converting long. If only the Bucs could have somehow combined both quarterbacks last season. Then again, that guy might have thrown for 40 interceptions by himself.

Still, if you’re wondering how the Bucs could decide to keep Winston, it’s for reasons like the ones above. He’s not just good but elite on money downs, and really always has been. Those guys don’t grow on trees, and over the course of the season he’ll give you far more scoring opportunities - as long as he doesn’t turn the ball over of course. Arians and Leftwich will have their work cut out for them finding ways to let him be aggressive while still limiting his turnovers and improving Tampa Bay’s points per redzone trip.