FAB 3. Bucs’ D Excellent On Third, Fourth Downs
In its heyday back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was known for a lot of things. It was a formidable, dominant unit that featured some legendary players doing some legendary things.
Here are a few examples of the greatness of the Bucs defense in its glory days.
• The creation of the “Tampa 2” defense by head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin – a defense that would propel the Bucs to seven playoff appearances, four division titles and a Super Bowl.
• Leading the Bucs to their 2002 Super Bowl victory with nine defensive touchdowns that season, including three pick-sixes in the Super Bowl.
• Hall of Famers in defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, along with Hall of Fame worthy defenders like cornerback Ronde Barber, safety John Lynch and defensive end Simeon Rice.
• Sapp being named the NFL Defensive MVP in 1999, and Brooks winning the same honors in 2002.
• The Bucs defense holding the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf” offense to just 309 yards and 11 points in the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
• No. 1 defensive rankings in 2002 and 2005 under Kiffin.
• An amazing streak of 50 games in which the Bucs defense recorded both a sack and a takeaway from October 29, 2000 vs. Minnesota to November 9, 2003 at Carolina.
But before most of these great accomplishments occurred, something happened.
Tampa Bay’s defense got really good on third down. After allowing teams to convert 40.7 percent on third down in 1996, which ranked 20th in the NFL, the Bucs improved to a 34.1 percent conversion rate on third down in 1997, which ranked 8th. That figure improved to 31.7 percent on third down, which ranked third in the league.
When the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002, the defense allowed 33.6 percent conversions on third down, which ranked third.
Third down defense is one of the biggest indicators for a team’s success. Through two games, the Bucs are off to a good start defensively on third down, allowing foes to convert just 30 percent, which is a far cry from a year ago when Mike Smith’s defense allowed a 40.3 percent conversion rate, which ranked 22nd in the league in 2018.
Want to know why the Bucs finished 5-11 in each of the last two years despite having one of the most potent offenses in the league? Tampa Bay’s third down defense was the culprit. In 2017, the Bucs allowed opponents to convert an astounding 48.1 percent on third downs, which was dead last in the NFL.
Smith’s penchant for playing his defenders way off the ball in Quarters coverage led to too many easy conversions for opponents over the past two years.
“It was tough – tough on the outside – when it’s third-and-2 and you’re playing off and you get a short route and give it up,” said Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. “There are guys that are capable of doing it but it’s very limited to guys like Brent Grimes, which is why Coach coached like that. You can do that when you have Brent Grimes. He can play seven yards off on fourth-and-1 and still make a play on the ball. But that’s not everybody. That wasn’t me. That’s not my game. That was one guy out of our 11 on defense – and he was one of a kind.”
Ironically, the Bucs were the best on fourth down stops in 2017, ranking first with 22.2 percent (2-of-9). Fourth down defensive percentages can be an outlier statistic, as evidenced in 2017 and also in ’18 when Tampa Bay ranked 10th with a 50 percent conversion rate.
In fact, in 1997, the Bucs had a Top 10 defense in total yards, scoring defense and third down defense, but ranked 28th on fourth down conversions by allowing opponents to complete 64.7 percent of those tries (11-of-17). The same thing happened to the 2002 defense that won the Super Bowl, as the only thing that vaunted defense couldn’t do right was stop teams on fourth down, evidenced by a 61.5 percent mark (8-of-13), which ranked 26th in the league.
But sometimes a defense can be good on third and fourth down, as was the case in Tampa Bay in 1998, 1999 and 2001 when the Bucs ranked inside the top 12 on both downs in those years. This year’s Tampa Bay defense, which held the Panthers to 3-of-14 (21 percent) on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth down in a win at Carolina on Thursday night, is the same way.
“It’s a stepping stone for us – to get back to the standard,” said Bucs defensive back M.J. Stewart. “That’s how it used to be around here. We’re tired of people talking about the Tampa Bay defense like we’re some slaps. You’ve got to come to play against us, especially our defense. We’re coming to play. We hold ourselves accountable and we’re getting stops.
“It was really big for momentum to get third down stops and fourth down stops. It gets the ball back for our offense and creates big momentum swings for our team. The more we can get our offense the ball the more points we can score.”
Evolution Of Bucs 3rd and 4th Down Defenses Under Kiffin
40.7% on third down – ranked 20th (87-of-214)
76.9% on fourth down – ranked 30th (10-of-13)
34.1% on third down – ranked 8th (75-of-220)
64.7% on fourth down – ranked 28th (11-of-17)
31.7% on third down – ranked 3rd (64-of-202)
21.4% on fourth down – ranked 2nd (3-of-14)
32.5% on third down – ranked 7th (75-of-231)
30.8% on fourth down – ranked 7th (4-of-13)
32.7% on third down –ranked 3rd (74-of-226)
60% on fourth down – ranked 21st (12-of-20)
36.1% on third down – ranked 12th (78-of-216)
30.8% on fourth down – ranked 7th (4-of-13)
33.6% on third down – ranked 3rd (77-of-234)
61.5% on fourth down – ranked 26th (8-of-13)
Now he is a look at how the Bucs defense performed under Smith for three seasons on third and fourth down, and how the unit has exceled in two games under Bowles.
Transition From Smith’s Defense To Bowles’ Defense
34.4% on third down – ranked 1st (67-of-195)
80% on fourth down – ranked 31st (8-of-10)
48.1% on third down – ranked 32nd (104-of-216)
22.2% on fourth down – ranked 1st (2-of-9)
40.3% on third down – ranked 22nd (73-of-181)
50% on fourth down – ranked 10th (7-of-14)
30% on third down – ranked 7th (8-of-27)
0% on fourth down – ranked 1st (0-of-3)
Being efficient on third down and fourth down not only helps a team win, it also creates an identity for the defense.
Tampa Bay safety Jordan Whitehead made the Bucs’ initial stop on fourth down in Carolina when he tackled Panthers quarterback Cam Newton short of the line to gain.
“That’s a great feeling and it sets the tone,” Whitehead said. “It shows how physical our defense is. Early in the game we had a couple fourth-and-1 stops and that set the tone. That’s who we are as a defense and it gives a lot of momentum to our offense. It’s a turnover in our book.
“Watching all the games this weekend they all come down to the end it seems. I saw the Jaguars and Texans come down to a fourth-and-1 at the goal line and they stopped him an inch short. It’s a game of inches and we have to defend every blade of grass. We can’t give up until it’s over.”
New Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians is famous for saying “defend every blade of grass,” and his Buccaneers are buying into that philosophy. And when it’s fourth-and-1, there isn’t much grass to defend.
That was certainly the case at the end of Tampa Bay’s win over Carolina when Hargreaves shoved Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey out of bounds just an inch short of the first down on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ 2-yard line.
“Fourth-and-shorts are 50-50 plays and it can go either way, so you have to be real disciplined and real gap sound on those short distances,” Hargreaves said. “You’ve got a gap and you’ve got to do your job. If you try to do too much that might be the little yard that they need.”
Two games in does not make a season. The Bucs were 2-0 last year after wins against New Orleans and Philadelphia, and finished 3-11 down the stretch. But Tampa Bay’s offense got off to a great start and finished as a Top 10 unit.
The Bucs are hoping they hot start on third and fourth defense is a sign of things to come for the entire 2019 season.
“It’s kind of early, I’ll say that, but we’re all playing better,” Hargreaves said. “It’s comforting, no matter how close the game gets or what the situation comes down to that we can get out of it with a big stop on third or fourth down. It’s a challenge and we accept it.”