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.

(via SharpFootballStats.com)

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

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.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
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nitey
nitey
3 years ago

Good cover 3 Trevor. I have a fairly simple observation that I think Dirk’s offensive system is predicated on a run first mentality and when the running game doesn’t work, he struggles to change to other tactics. In 2015, the last year Martin was effective, Koetter’s offense seemed to work well. I suspect if you analyzed that season you would find similar metrics to last season. But in 2016 and 2017, Martin was ineffective and his replacements were as well. But Dirk seemed to not be willing to change from the system that had been effective before. I’m of the… Read more »

Horse
Horse
Reply to  nitey
3 years ago

+1

Jlog
Jlog
Reply to  Horse
3 years ago

+1 to both of you.

Horse
Horse
3 years ago

Most of us have been saying it for decades to throw short passes on first downs.

surferdudes
3 years ago

One of the best teams in football, the Pats use the short passing game on 1st downs, and well they’re one of the best teams in football. Continually handing the ball to Martin on first down, and not taking advantage of our tight ends, and receivers was obviously a mistake. Will Koetter change, will he let Monken lose with the offence? I doubt it. Koetter showed no ability to adapt last year, don’t expect that to change. Will R. Jones change our ability to do better running on first down? We may never know if Koetter doesn’t trust his rookie… Read more »

Horse
Horse
Reply to  surferdudes
3 years ago

+1

fredster
fredster
3 years ago

The Pats are one of best because they have Tom Brady throwing short passes on first down. He’s a master at reading defenses and Winston is not.

Agree with ya Nitey Bucs were successful on offense in those years you mentioned in large part because run game worked. Last year no RB did much so it wasn’t Martin so much as the O line.70-30 the O line was issue last year. If not then Peyton Barber isn’t starter material. He didn’t better than Martin but not huge amount better.

fredster
fredster
3 years ago

Also Can you believe Koetter for not passing on first down especially in beginning of games with Winston always starting so slow and innacurate early in games? Second half especially when we’re behind I think he ran on first down too much.

For whatever reason coaches don’t like to change the game plan much. We can ask a bigger head scratcher why didn’t Smith ever blitz when we had zero pass rush. Preferred a slow death to a speedy one. Maybe who the hell knows what they are thinking.

wnb0395
wnb0395
Reply to  fredster
3 years ago

Fredster, I think its the other way round. Because Winston starts so slow, you would think Koetter would want to start the game with short easy passes on first down. It would warm him up quicker and get him in rhythm. Let Winston throw the high percentage short passes to boost his confidence and get him in sync with his receivers. They are easy high percentage throws with the WR usually open because the defense expects the run.

fredster
fredster
3 years ago

Meant blame koetter

nitey
nitey
3 years ago

I’ve been saying this all off season, I think the talent level is there (maybe for the first time) for us to be a positive win team this year, but I’m not convinced the coaching staff coaches in a manner to put that talent to the best use. At least I feel strongly that way with Koetter, but not yet about Smith. Smith didn’t have enough talent last season and when injuries hit I doubt any defensive coordinator could have done much with the talent level we had on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. This year, we’ll… Read more »

fredster
fredster
3 years ago

I’ve said several times If they have a middle of pack defense and improved offense I’ll be happy. I also think 8-10 wins is possible with middle of pack D and better run game/offense. Will have to see just never know with Bucs. We have come to expect the worst and justifiably so.

chefboho
chefboho
3 years ago

Great read Trevor. I think we can all agree that this team was beyond predictable last year. 1st down, run up the middle with Martin, 2nd down, throw 30 yards down the field, 3rd down try to force the ball to Charles Simms. Sound familiar? Step it up koetter

skipper
skipper
3 years ago

Tom Brady would not fair much or any better last season at QB for the Bucs, poor pass protection, and no run game dooms any QB’s play. We also know the Bucs defense was one of the worst in the NFL last season, not exactly a recipe for victories.

seat26
seat26
3 years ago

Great Article Trevor.
One of the things I loved about the West Coast Offense was the idea of the quick slant dunk pass on first down. It can be so hard to defend against and you might only get 5 to 7 yards, but it makes it a lot easier to convert on 2nd or 3rd down. We need to make our offense less predictable.

scubog
scubog
3 years ago

I didn’t realize the Bucs ran the ball, or should I say “attempted” to run the ball, on first down more than any other team. I believe the ineffective running is what caused the struggles at the goal line when defenses simply went into pass coverage.

owlykat
owlykat
3 years ago

It all starts up front. There is a good reason the Bucs OL has been poor the whole time Offensive Line Coach Warhop has been here. That is why PR saw so many mistakes up front. Poor coaching by Warhop. But since Koetter knows nothing about OL, he just swallows every excuse Warhop gives him. I just hope Monken as OC can step in and at least insist on players be put where they belong up front and explain Warhop’s short comings to Koetter, who failed to bring in an Offensive Line Coach with Buckner quality.

owlykat
owlykat
3 years ago

By the way when Atlanta’s HC came in after Smith and Koetter he brought in Navy Seals to workout with his players to not only make them tougher and stronger, but also to stress working together as a team. As the DC he did the same thing to build up Seattle to a juggernaught. But that is why Koetter and Smith did so badly with the same players. You play like you practice. Koetter best stop his pansy practice regimen! Oh, for those who think we can beat San Francisco, they brought in the Navy Seals this year for the… Read more »

Nobody
Nobody
3 years ago

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… Read more »