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How to fix the Bucs - the value of first downs

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The key to righting the ship lies within reach.

Central Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

A recent tweet created something of a firestorm online:


Part of this is because of the spread, which looks to get the ball out quicker and quicker every year. This doesn’t mean that a good pass rush is useless, or isn’t necessary; it’s still a vital component to winning. Just that now a good pass rush may not be as important as good pass coverage.

In 2017 the Bucs’ defense had the 31st ranked pass defense by DVOA. In 2018, they were 30th. Coincidentally, they finished both years at 5-11. If the Bucs are going to turn the ship around, it must get much better against the pass. This is a big reason why the Bucs’ 2019 draft wasn’t nearly as bad as many people think, though of course we’ll have to wait and see how many of the defensive backs they drafted hit.

In short, you need to be able to pass well and stop the pass well if you want to win. The Bucs were really good at the former, and have been for a while.

Last season the Bucs led the NFL in passing first downs and in the percentage of pass plays that went for a first down.

In 2017 Jameis Winston led all NFL quarterbacks in percentage of pass attempts that picked up first downs, showing that his successes last season weren’t a fluke. He’s been in the top two in air yards per attempt every year. While Winston had some tremendous struggles in 2018 with interception meltdown games that continue to plague him, when he replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 11, from then to the end of the season Winston was one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league. While overall consistency has eluded him, he has steadily been one of the best intermediate quarterbacks since entering the league in 2015.

But why does any of this matter? Well, according to Chase Stuart of footballperspective.com:

Passing first down percentage is defined as passing first downs divided by total team pass attempts (which includes sacks). The Bucs led the NFL at 39.8%, and were followed closely by four 12+ wins teams: the Rams (39.3%), Chiefs (39.2%), Chargers (39.0%), and Saints (39.0%). The bottom 8 teams in passing first down percentage all lost at least 9 games, with the Cardinals (25.0%), Bills (25.4%), Jaguars (27.8%), Jets (28.0%), and Redskins (28.2%) in the bottom five.

Passing efficiency on offense is also correlated to winning, and the Bucs largely have one part of the formula figured out. By DVOA the Rams, Chiefs, Chargers and Saints defenses were 18th, 26th, 8th, and 11th respectively.

So why did the Bucs go just 5-11 if they were one of the best teams at picking up first downs? Stuart has three reasons:

Tampa Bay had 35 turnovers, the most in the NFL.

The Bucs running backs were very bad: they had 296 carries for just 1,049 yards (3.5 YPC) and picked up only 50 first downs. The 1,049 yards and 50 first downs were the fewest in the NFL by any set of running backs.

Tampa Bay’s pass defense was also atrocious, which is the point of today’s post.

First, one of the reasons for the anemic rushing attack was the playcalling. As Dirk Koetter appeared to interfere in former offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s playcalling as the season went on, the Bucs looked more and more like they had when Koetter was calling plays. By that I mean, the Bucs began running again on first downs early in games, instead of passing as they had early in the season under Monken. In the first three weeks of the season, the Bucs had a nearly even run/pass split on first downs in the first quarter. From weeks 10 through 14 the Bucs ran in those same situations almost twice as often as they passed, much as they had in 2016 and 2017.

58 percent of all the Bucs’ runs last year were on first down. At just 3.87 yards per rush, that led to a tremendous amount of obvious passing downs on 2nd and 3rd. It’s probably not a coincidence that Winston was much worse on second downs than on any other down. Running so much on first down would also explain the poor rushing first down rate. You want to be able to run in short yardage situations, not run for the sake of running.

Second and most importantly, the Buccaneers’ defense was the worst in the NFL in first down passing percentage allowed at 36.5 percent, allowing 209 first downs on just 534 attempts. To put that in perspective, the Chicago Bears led the NFL at 28 percent, allowing just 186 first downs on a whopping 615 pass attempts.

Third, Winston has thrown five times as many interceptions when trailing as he has when the Bucs are leading. Despite the offense being 12th in points per drive (2.17) last season, every time the offense took the field they were down by an average of 3.59 points, 25th in the NFL. That was because the defense was giving up 2.48 points per drive (30th). Even with all the turnovers from Winston and Fitzpatrick, the defense only faced a league average number of drives. Does Winston throw so many picks when trailing because he’s forcing stuff, or because the Bucs are always behind? Probably a little bit of both.

Simply put, the defense was so bad that it didn’t matter how good the offense was, but Winston was taking an already losing situation and just making it worse. Despite being one of the better QBs from Week 11 on, the Bucs went 2-5 in that final stretch. In fact, there hasn’t been a season since Winston was drafted where the defense didn’t give up more points per drive than the offense was able to earn. For the offense to have outscored the defense, since 2015, they’d had to have been in the top 4 Winston’s rookie year, among the top 17 in 2016, in the top 7 in 2017, and last season among the top 3.

Winston needs to work on bringing his turnovers under control, but if new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can improve the pass defense the Bucs could very quickly become a playoff team. That’s a tall order, as improving one of the league’s worst units to even an average one would be a tremendous feat in a single season. But the key to the Bucs righting the ship undoubtedly lies in the hands of Bowles and the Tampa Bay secondary, and it starts on first down.