TAMPA — When Dirk Koetter took over as Bucs 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 last season.
After five games, he has taken major steps toward his goal. The Bucs have reduced penalty yards more than any other team, by 19.5 per game. They are on pace for their fewest penalties and penalty yards since 2012.
That's progress, but Koetter is focused on addressing the timing of penalties, making sure they don't come in crucial situations, as they did in last week's 17-14 win at Carolina. The Bucs had just 40 penalty yards, less than in any game last season, but a few were big enough to impact the score.
"As a number, if you just threw out five penalties, you'd say, 'Heck, that's not bad,' " Koetter said. "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 helped stall a drive in Carolina territory, the other led to a missed field goal. Carolina's second touchdown came two plays after a roughing-the-punter penalty extended a drive.
Last season, Tampa Bay was penalized for 336 more yards than its opponents, but this year it has been flagged for 45 yards less.
And as former Bucs coach Lovie Smith is now at Illinois, the flags followed him. The Illini leads the Big Ten in penalties and penalty yards in Smith's first season.
The Bucs' biggest progress on penalties is on defense, under new coordinator Mike Smith, who had some of the NFL's least-penalized teams as the Falcons' head coach. On Monday at Carolina, the Bucs defense didn't have a penalty, and in five games this season, the defense has 10 penalties.
In 309 total plays, despite a slew of injuries on the defensive line, the Bucs have been offside just once, with one encroachment penalty. They have just two unnecessary roughness penalties, on pace to finish well under last season's total of 12.
Even the problem areas have improved such as the offensive line, which has six holds and six false starts but is on course for 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 league for any position other than defensive back. That puts him on pace for 19 — only once in the past 15 years has a Buc had 15 accepted penalties, when offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker had 17 in 2003.
The Bucs play at San Francisco this week, where another first-year coach has seen similar improvement; Chip Kelly's 49ers have 19.2 fewer penalty yards per game.
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 coach.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.