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Is the Bucs’ run defense actually hurting the pass defense?

A question for consideration.

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Vita Vea anchors the Bucs’ run defense.
Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Bruce Arians has said it himself.

The Bucs are built to stop the run.

And they’ve done just so thus far in 2019. Tampa Bay’s run defense is the best unit in the NFL in both standard and advanced statistics. What’s even more impressive is the fact that they are a top-4 team in every facet that makes up the overall aforementioned stats.

According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs currently own the top-ranked run defense when it comes to their overall run defense metric. They are second in terms of adjusted line yards, first in yards per carry, third in power success, second in stuffed rank, second in second-level rank, and first in open-field rank.

They are the only team in the NFL to hold a top-3 spot in all of those categories. No one even comes close. They’re just as impressive when it comes to standard statistics, as well. The Bucs allow just 68 yards per game on the ground (1st) and 2.9 yards per carry (1st). The longest run allowed is a 19-yarder (2nd) and the defense has allowed 24 first downs on the ground (t-4th).

Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and William Gholston have proven to be very effective in the form of run defenders. Their combination of size, strength, and speed have routinely given opposing offensive lines as much as they can handle. It’s been a breath of fresh air to see a defensive front hold its own compared to the units we’ve seen in the past.

But the secondary is a problem. A big problem. Not much has changed from the group we saw last year.

Tampa Bay’s pass defense currently sits at 25th, according to Football Outsiders. It’s dead last in terms of yards allowed per game (304.5 ypg) and the next team - the New York Giants - allow almost 20 yards less through the air on average (285 ypg). The secondary is tied for the seventh-most touchdowns allowed (11) and 36.4 percent of passes have gone for a first down (t-12th worst).

The end result is a middle-of-the-pack defense that can create turnovers and negative plays, but is also susceptible to multi-pronged offenses and can give up the big play.

But at the same time, this type of disparity between the run defense and pass defense is a bit strange, no?

Scheme and talent obviously makes a difference, here. If you don’t have the right defense called in the backfield or if you don’t have the proper players to execute said defense, then things can - and will - go wrong in a hurry. Bruce Arians said earlier in the year that the “secondary was fixed”, however, so according to him, it’s not the players.

We also know - for the most part - that it’s not the scheme, either. Todd Bowles’ defenses have been known to give quarterbacks headaches over the years, so unless the league has completely caught up and his system has become obsolete, it’s doubtful that the system is the root cause.

It’s likely a combination of both of those points, but what if there was another factor to throw into the mix?

What if the Bucs’ elite run defense is actually hurting the pass defense?

Logically and philosophically, it makes sense. Think about it. The Bucs are second in Football Outsider’s “Stuff Rank”, which means they excel at stopping running backs at either the line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage. They are also top-2 in “Second Level Rank” and “Open Field Rank”, which means they don’t allow yards at the second- or third-levels of the defense.

Therefore, when an opponent runs against the Bucs, the general outcome is a gain of three yards or less, which is not an optimal gain for an offense. The opposing offense is now placed in a “must-throw” situation, and they’re likely looking at a down-and-7 or further scenario, at minimum.

Since the secondary is so bad, the offense has the upper hand in this situation, when it usually wouldn’t have the upper hand. The Bucs’ run defense is actually exposing the weak secondary, since they are placing opposing offenses in “must-throw” situations.

I’m not saying the Bucs should give up yards on the ground, but what if the run defense didn’t dominate like it did? What if giving offenses just a bit more room to breathe on the ground alleviated the secondary’s responsibilities?

Granted, logic and philosophy can be subjective at times, so I decided to look at some numbers.

I decided to take a look at the last two games in terms of how opposing offenses attack the Bucs’ defense in this scenario. I took a look at each offensive play that the Saints and Panthers ran during both games and separated the results from their rushing attempts into two categories: runs that accumulated three yards or less and runs that accumulated four yards or more.

I then tracked what opponents did on the next play and the result of said play and totaled everything out. This is what I found.

  • Over the last two games, opponents have totaled 24 runs of three yards or less against the Bucs’ defense. Opponents attempted five runs and 19 passes on the subsequent play. Of those five rush attempts, opponents totaled eight yards and one touchdown. Of the 19 pass attempts, opponents completed 10/16 passes for 91 yards and three touchdowns. They also totaled seven scramble yards on three attempts.
  • On the other hand, opponents have totaled 12 runs of four yards or more against the Bucs’ defense. Opponents attempted six runs and six pass on the subsequent play. Of those six rush attempts, opponents gained 20 yards on the ground. Of the six pass attempts, opponents completed 4/5 passes for 12 yards, with eight scramble yards on one attempt.

Based off the last two games, it seems as if allowing opponents to find a little more room on the ground does in fact reduce the number of points allowed by the defense.

Again, no one is saying “let your opponent run all over you”, but it is interesting that there is a major spike attempt in passes after a failed run attempt as opposed to the opposite. The Bucs are essentially forcing themselves into a bad spot by relying on their secondary like they have.

The solution simple: get better in the secondary.

But that will take time, and when it comes to the NFL, time is the one thing that is certainly not guaranteed.


Is the Bucs’ run defense actually hurting the pass defense?

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