Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
The following is an excerpt from Pat Kirwan’s book, Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look
Roughly 125 offensive plays are run during the course of an NFL game. And while fans are quick to question the wisdom of almost any play called in a given situation, few have any sense of the time and attention to detail that goes into preparing for every decision a coach will make over the course of a game.
A coach’s master playbook can contain about 1,000 plays – pretty much anything he would ever consider calling in a game. Every bomb, blitz and blocking scheme is in there somewhere, along with every gadget play and goal-line scenario. And every call has its roots somewhere in that all-encompassing bible, which every coach is forever adding to and carrying with him from job to job.
The process of paring down that playbook into a single Sunday’s game plan begins pretty much as soon as the previous season ends. Coaching staffs spend most of January (if they’re out of the playoffs) and February going through some critical self-analysis, evaluating what they did well and what they did poorly during the season, and starting to decide what they’re going to retain or change for the following year.
At the same time, they are preparing for the start of free agency and the upcoming draft. The personnel plan takes shape based on what the coach envisions being able to do in the upcoming season. He’ll want to target players and prospects who will fit what he plans to run.
As a team’s personnel changes and its personality evolves through free agency and the draft, the overall game plan is steadily refined. Through organized team activities (OTAs) and mini-camps, coaches whittle away at their playbook, identifying the plays that best fit the team they’ll have to work with. They try to maximize the strengths they see emerging, eliminate the obvious problem areas, and anticipate the match-ups they’ll be facing. Coaching staffs meet after practice every day, debating the pros and cons of every play they can imagine using in a game situation. The accumulation of those plays becomes the playbook for the next season, and by June 15, that actual playbook goes to the printer. A coach is now committed to his philosophy for the year.
Today, as I publish this Cover 3 column, it is July 24, and that means that Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter’s playbook has been sent to the printer and is likely finalized, laminated and in the office of every coach and assistant coach on staff. Actually, it’s probably on a Microsoft Surface or an Apple iPad, too.
There have been many who have criticized the Bucs offense over the past few years, myself certainly included on that list. When I do that, I don’t mean to over-simplify the job of Koetter and his offensive staff. Their job of creating an offensive theme, modeling plays around it, and then coming up with a game plan each week is certainly much more difficult than my job of sitting behind a computer and criticizing things when they go wrong.
But were the Buccaneers really stubborn in their play calls last year or are we just focusing on the negative when we say that? Since it’s the year 2018, we don’t have to rely on faded memory to confirm or deny this thought process. Instead, we can look at the numbers and see what the Bucs did well, what they didn’t and where we might be able to see immediate improvement with some self-critical evaluation that Kirwan talked about in the quote above.
In the modified chart above we have the Buccaneers’ play types and success rates in quarters 1-3 and between the 20-yard lines from the 2017 season. This takes out a good amount of the forced play-calling and also certain late-game scripts, such as calling certain plays fully based on the scoreboard – either trying to play catch up or protecting the lead. This gives us a better look at what Koetter and the Buccaneers choose to do when they are allowed to call whatever they want.
The Buccaneers ran the ball on 1st-and-10 more than any other team in the league last year and that went against the grain when it came to success rates. With just 3.6 yards per carry, the Buccaneers put themselves in a hole more often than they had to. Teams like the Patriots, Vikings, Saints, Steelers and Eagles all started their drives with more passing than the Buccaneers did – mostly due to the fact that their yards per attempt average of more than seven yards when passing the ball made the margin for error/improvement much more favorable than when rushing the ball.
Think about it. If your success rate for completing a pass is over 60 percent and your percentage of gaining more than four yards per attempt is less than 60 percent, you’re just playing the numbers the right way when passing on 1st-and-10.
Now, of course, this isn’t an every time thing. You still have to run the football to be able to move drive, even if you’re a more pass-heavy team. I’m not saying abandon the run or don’t run on first down at all. What I’m saying is that when you’re the team that rushes the ball on first down the most, and many of the Top 10 offenses in the league don’t follow that trend, maybe you need to re-evaluate how often you call run plays on first down.
The success rate for the Buccaneers on first down was lower than the rest of the league, as a result, but what made the biggest difference was in how they set themselves up so poorly on second down because of it.
You’re always looking to make drives as easy as possible. Yes, 10 yards and the first down is the goal, and there are other factors when taking shots down the field that come into play, but aimed to achieve second-and-short should always be the goal for an offense. On second-and-short, your chance of success while running the ball for a first down is over 70 percent.
Bucs RB Peyton Barber – Photo by: Getty Images
If you can run the ball and get yourself into second-and-short situations, you do it, but if that’s not possible for the Buccaneers due to a lack of rushing attack, you have to switch it up and find a better way to achieve it. Second-and-short situations allow you to completely take advantage of a defense with both the run and the pass. Success rates on both are so much higher due to the threat of a plethora of different options at that down and distance. Due to the Bucs not having much of a ground game and yet continuing to try on first-and-10, they didn’t get themselves in enough second-and-short situations in 2017.
Teams like the Eagles and Vikings ran the ball plenty on first and second down, but their success on first down was so much better due to the fact that they were more apt to pass the ball that their second down situations were more favorable and more successful because of it. This also caused the Buccaneers to be on the wrong end of the conversion trend when it came to third downs.
On third downs, when the rest of the league was choosing to run the ball, and teams like the Saints and Patriots were converting nearly 80 percent of the time when running the ball in third-and-short situations, the Buccaneers actually passed the ball in third-and-short situations more than they ran it, when in the middle of the field and between the first and third quarters. The Bucs success percentage was in the green at 56 percent, but wasn’t near the success rate of team that kept it simple and picked up first downs on third-and-short situations by running the ball.
I’m not sure if it was due to a lack of personnel, a lack of trust in the personnel or a lack of execution, but when it came to play call frequency, the Bucs were on the opposite end of the right trend in 2017. They were running on first down too much when they should have been passing, and they were failing to set themselves up and convert on second down because of it. And Tampa Bay made things much harder on itself than it had to by not being able to pick up three yards on the ground on third downs.
There are plays in which the Buccaneers ran the correct calls in each situation, but I would argue that they didn’t happen enough. On the next page we’ll get into some film of what the Bucs need to do more of in 2018 when it comes to play call frequency and play design within them.