Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs defense is among the NFL’s worst. Here’s why last season was an illusion.

This Bucs defense looks familiar.

Like the 2016 version.

The one that allowed the Cardinals to camp out in the end zone.

The one that couldn’t stop a Raiders team that couldn’t stop committing penalties.

The one that surrendered 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns in the span of five days.

You remember it, don’t you?

It also was the same defense that suddenly turned things around.

The Bucs allowed nearly 100 fewer points over the second half of the season than they allowed over the first half. That amounted to 12 fewer points allowed per game.

But what if that turnaround was an illusion?

There’s evidence that suggests that’s the case.

RELATED STORY: Signs the Bucs defense is due for regression

Over the first half of last season, Tampa Bay’s defense hemorrhaged explosive plays, allowing about 10 per game. Coach Dirk Koetter defines them as pass plays of at least 16 yards and run plays of at least 12 yards. He emphasizes keeping them to a minimum because when teams execute them, they’re more likely to score points.

Over the second half, the Bucs allowed less than eight explosive plays per game. That only partly explains why they allowed fewer points, however.

Explosive plays are No. 2 on Koetter’s list of events that determine whether a team wins.

No. 1? Turnovers.

Over the first half, Tampa Bay recorded 11 takeaways, which was right around league average. Over the second half, it recorded 18 takeaways, a league high.

The Bucs took the ball away from their opponents a lot. More than anything, that’s why they won six of their final eight games.

That’s not to say there isn’t some skill or strategy involved in forcing turnovers. There is. But it’s extremely difficult to sustain a high turnover rate. Takeaways can be random, products of luck and timing.

Through six games this season, Tampa Bay has recorded nine takeaways, which once again is right around league average.

As for explosive plays, the numbers support your gut feeling.

The Bucs are allowing more explosive plays than they’re executing.

They’ve executed 38 passes and six runs.

They’ve allowed 36 passes and 14 runs.

In Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Bills, they allowed 11 total.

"We’ve got to do a better job of not giving up explosive plays," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "That was probably the biggest issue that we had in the ballgame were the explosive plays and our third-down efficiency."

Despite its trouble with throwing the deep ball this season, Tampa Bay actually has executed a high number of explosive passes. Runs ... not so much. Only the Cardinals have executed fewer. Five, to be exact. And three of those came against — you guessed it — the Bucs.

But those raw numbers might not be the most accurate representation of Tampa Bay’s performance this season, on offense or defense. For example, the Bucs have executed a third of their explosive passes in the fourth quarter. That’s the product of them playing from behind and of their opponents, with the game in hand, playing softer defense.

In search of a more accurate representation, we tossed out fourth quarter numbers altogether.

After that adjustment, half of the NFL has a positive explosive play differential. Only a quarter has a negative differential that reaches double digits.

Tampa Bay, at -10, is one of those eight.

The table below contains each team’s explosive plays per game averages. Again, we excluded fourth-quarter plays. Teams are ranked in order of differential, from best to worst.

It might seem as if the table suggests that explosive plays don’t dictate winning and losing as much as Koetter says. Indeed, the correlation between explosive plays and wins isn’t perfect. It’s possible for teams to overcome a negative differential.

But remember what comes first on Koetter’s list: Turnovers.

So when you look at the top of that table and wonder why the Broncos and Falcons don’t have more wins, there’s a good reason. They’re at the bottom of the league in takeaways.

Same goes for the other end of the spectrum. The Packers have, at best, an average defense. Yet they have an above-average number of takeaways. As for the Chiefs, we’ve already seen signs of regression. They’ve allowed 30 points in two of their past three games.

Back to the Bucs. They’re not in good company. Beside the Packers and Chiefs, the Colts, Dolphins, Ravens, Giants and Raiders are the only other teams with worse differentials.

There’s a reason this season’s defense looks familiar. That’s because it’s the same defense as the one we saw during the first half of last season. The coaches, the players, the performances — for the most part, they’re all the same.

Unless the Bucs go on another takeaway binge, a turnaround like last season’s isn’t happening.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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