Bucs are NFL's most improved team in penalties
When Dirk Koetter took over as the Bucs' head coach, one of his top priorities was establishing discipline on a team that tied for the NFL lead in penalties and set franchise records for penalties and penalty yards in 2015.
After five games, he's taken major steps toward that goal -- the Bucs have reduced their penalties more than any team in the NFL, with 19.5 fewer penalty yards per game. They're on pace for their fewest penalties and penalty yards since 2012.
That overall progress is great, but Koetter is focused on addressing the timing of penalties, making sure they don't cost the team in crucial situations, as they did in last week's 17-14 win over Carolina. The Bucs had just 40 penalty yards, less than in any game last season, but a few were big enough to impact the scoreboard.
"As a number, if you just threw out five penalties, you'd say, 'Heck, that's not bad,'" Koetter said last week. "But the timing of our penalties was not good. ... The number of penalties was good. The critical level of those penalties was not good."
Twice, the Bucs had false starts on third-and-1 -- one was followed by a sack to stall a drive in Carolina territory, and the other came at the Panthers' 5-yard line, followed by a delay of game penalty, then a missed field goal. Carolina's second touchdown came two plays after a roughing-the-punter penalty extended a drive that had been stopped.
Overall, however, the Bucs have made major progress in the penalty department. Last year's team was penalized for 336 more yards than opponents, but this year's team has been flagged for 45 yards less than opponents. That swing works out to an improvement of 30 net yards per game.
And as Lovie Smith moved on to the University of Illinois, the flags have followed him there -- the Illini now lead the Big Ten in penalties and penalty yards in his first season, averaging 26 more yards in penalties than a year ago.
The Bucs' biggest progress on penalties has come on defense, where new coordinator Mike Smith had some of the NFL's least-penalized teams when he was the Falcons' head coach. In Monday's win against Carolina, the defense didn't have a single penalty called against them, and in five games this season, the defense has 10 total penalties.
In 309 total plays, despite a slew of injuries on the defensive line, the Bucs have been offsides just once, with one encroachment penalty as well. They have just two unnecessary roughness penalties, on pace to finish well under last year's total of 12.
Even the problem areas are improved -- the offensive line has six holds and six false starts, but they're still on course to have nine fewer holding penalties than a year ago. There's room for individual improvement -- right tackle Demar Dotson has six penalties, matching the most in the NFL for any position other than defensive back. That puts him on pace for 19 this season -- only once in the last 15 years has a Bucs player even had 15 accepted penalties: tackle Kenyatta Walker had 17 in 2003.
The Bucs go to San Francisco this week, where another first-year coach has seen similar improvement as Chip Kelly has the 49ers getting 19.2 fewer penalty yards per game. It's a chance to show how far the Bucs have come from a year ago -- their sixth game of 2015 saw them commit a season-high 16 penalties for 142 yards, giving the Redskins seven first downs on flags as Washington overcame a 24-point deficit to stun the Bucs.
Koetter is realistic in understanding that he can't eliminate penalties entirely -- his weekly goal is to have six or fewer, and the Bucs are 2-1 this season when they meet that goal. Keep the flags down, and they'll be in better position to keep the wins coming more steadily in Koetter's first season as head coach.