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Tampa Bay Buccaneers not good enough to overcome a negative turnover differential


The offense does not overwhelm anyone with its ability to cover the length of a field in a handful of seconds. Never has.

The defense rarely stops opponents dead in their tracks. Leading the league in three-and-outs is not what this unit does best.

No, when the Buccaneers are good, it is because they are smart. They are opportunistic. They are a team that understands the value of a turnover.

It might be the No. 1 reason the Bucs went 10-6 in 2010.

And failing to remember that could derail them in 2011.

Through five games, Tampa Bay has a winning record and has remained in contention in the NFC South. But there has also been a disturbing trend.

After being one of the top five teams in turnover differential last season, the Bucs are in the middle of the pack. The offense is losing the ball more frequently, and the defense is creating fewer turnovers. In the history of the NFL, that has never qualified as an attractive combo.

There are several explanations on both sides of the ball, but most of them go unnoticed. If there is a finger to be pointed, the obvious target is the quarterback.

Josh Freeman did two things well in 2010. He was poised in the fourth quarter, and he avoided mistakes the rest of the game.

Freeman threw six interceptions in 474 passes, which was a phenomenal ratio for a 22-year-old. Yet Freeman is already up to six interceptions in his first 178 passes of 2011.

"He hasn't made the great decisions up to this point. He's got to make better decisions," coach Raheem Morris said Monday. "That's constantly getting your quarterback better. That's constantly the development of Josh Freeman.

"So he's got to do a better job of going through his progressions and getting to his checkdowns."

For the most part, these are not fluke interceptions. It is not a lot of tipped balls flying in the air or a defensive lineman hitting Freeman as he throws.

The common theme is Freeman trying to make a play by forcing a pass into coverage. That's understandable considering how much the Bucs rely on Freeman, but it is also too risky for a team that does not have a large margin for error.

"Sometimes when you lack the big plays that we've been lacking this year, you start to force some things, and that's not a good decision by the quarterback," Morris said. "Sometimes he relies on his arm a little too much. They touched too many balls down the field that they could have picked off. They did pick off two. We've got to keep those things in perspective, at the same time, because he is able to make some big plays.

"A little bit of it is on him. Some of it is on the receivers; they have to come up with those balls. Some of it is just getting open and making plays as a unit, and we'll do that."

It is not just his offensive teammates who have made life more difficult for Freeman. The defense has forced fewer turnovers, which means the offense is not getting as many opportunities on a short field.

The Bucs came up with 19 interceptions in 2010 yet have picked off only two passes in five games this season. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib each has one interception, but the Bucs have gotten none from their safeties or linebackers.

"We definitely have to get more turnovers," Morris said.

How important is turnover differential?

For a coach who routinely disparages statistics, Morris keeps a close eye on the number of turnovers being created and lost.

The Bucs were 19th in total offense and 17th in total defense last season, but they were one of the league's more successful teams because they were fifth in turnover differential. The top 10 teams in turnover differential went 109-51 last season.

Look at it this way:

Which teams would you consider the biggest surprises of 2011? The Bills? The 49ers? The Lions? They just happen to be the top three teams in the NFL in turnover differential. The biggest disappointment? How about the Eagles, who are tied for last.

At this point, the Bucs have turned the ball over eight times and forced seven turnovers. They've still managed a winning record, but it's hard to imagine them winning 10 games again if that trend continues.

And, as unfair as it is to heap any more weight on Freeman's shoulders, his ability to take care of the ball could determine Tampa Bay's fate.

"He knows he's got to protect the football. There's no secret," Morris said. "You all have talked to Josh Freeman enough to know he's smart enough, and well detailed enough, to know that he just can't press it and push it."

Losing grip

20102011 pace
Fumbles lost136.4
INTs thrown619.2
Fumbles gained916
INTs created196.4

See a pattern?

The Bucs' record can be measured by whether they have a positive turnover ratio in individual games.

Positive ratio7-22-0
Equal or negative3-41-2

Tampa Bay Buccaneers not good enough to overcome a negative turnover differential 10/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 11:16pm]
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