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We found what's missing from the Buccaneers offense

The Bucs have executed 20 explosive runs, which by coach Dirk Koetter's definition are runs of at least 12 yards. Five of those runs came against the 49ers in Week 7. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

The Bucs have executed 20 explosive runs, which by coach Dirk Koetter's definition are runs of at least 12 yards. Five of those runs came against the 49ers in Week 7. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

You might have wondered Sunday night whether the Bucs could have skipped first down and gone right to second.

More often than not, they would have been better off.

When Jameis Winston handed the ball to Doug Martin, Cowboys defenders converged immediately, swallowing him like a marble in Hungry Hungry Hippos. When Winston passed, the results weren't any better. He was sacked three times, lost a fumble and threw an interception.

In all, the Bucs gained 61 yards on 26 first-down plays. They failed to gain a yard 14 times. It was their worst performance on first down this season, and considering their season-long inconsistency on first down, that's saying something.

The Bucs were the NFL's best team on first down last season, gaining more than 6 yards per play. They've slid to second worst this season, gaining a yard and a half less. That puts them in bad company. They're as effective as the Rams, Jets, Giants and Texans.

I asked coach Dirk Koetter this week about the team's first-down performance, and he said what you'd expect: First down is the most important down because it affects later downs. Perform well on first down, and you'll see more favorable third downs. Convert third downs, and you'll sustain more drives. Sustain more drives, and you'll score more points.

While there's not a perfect correlation between a team's average first-down gain and its win total, we shouldn't dismiss it. We also should avoid making assumptions about what will happen in the future.

The Bucs called hundreds of plays on first down last season. They gained exactly 6 yards 29 times. So it would be a mistake to see the Bucs' average first-down gain of 4.6 yards this season and conclude that they gain 4 or 5 yards on most plays.

Here's what that average really tells us: Something is missing.

That thing is explosive plays.

Koetter defines them as pass plays of at least 16 yards and run plays of at least 12 yards. His goal is to execute at least eight per game.

The Bucs did that last season. This season, not so much.

An offense can execute them on any down, of course, but in general, the best time is on first or second down. That's when the opponent has to be prepared to defend the run or the pass, short and deep. The objective on third and fourth downs is more narrow: Keep the drive alive.

The Bucs' average first-down gain this season tells us they're executing fewer explosive plays in such situations, and those struggles have spilled into second down. On early downs, they're executing one fewer explosive pass play and one fewer explosive run play per game.

Percent on first and second down Explosive passes Explosive runs
2015 77.7 74 (4.6/game) 34 (2.1/game)
2016 70.8 52 (3.7/game) 16 (1.1/game)

That might not seem like much, but in a sport in which games can come down to a handful of plays, it's everything. Big plays are what separate the Falcons from the Rams.

Percent on first and second down Explosive passes Explosive runs
Falcons 85.3 79 (5.6/game) 31 (2.2/game)
Rams 79.7 45 (3.2/game) 14 (1.0/game)

Can the Bucs break out Saturday? It's possible, considering that the Saints have the fourth-worst defense, according to Football Outsiders' ratings. However, they aren't as prone to allowing as many explosive plays as you'd think. They're exactly league-average.

It's also possible because it's football, and football can be random. However the game unfolds, the most influential plays are likely to occur on first or second down.

Remember when Drew Brees overthrew Brandin Cooks on a potential game-changing 39-yard touchdown pass two weeks ago? That happened on first down.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

We found what's missing from the Buccaneers offense 12/23/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2016 6:00pm]
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