Situational football has been a glaring issue for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their three losses during the 2021 season, and one struggle, in particular, was put on full display last Sunday when the Bucs lost to the Washington Football Team.
That struggle is conversion defense.
Tampa Bay allowed Washington to convert on 11-of-19 third downs in Week 10 and twice on as many fourth-down attempts. The Bucs' third-down conversion rating allowed (57.9%) would comfortably rank last in the NFL if it was a season-long average.
Buccaneers' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles wasn't pleased with the showing, although he indicated that the blunders aren't a major concern moving forward considering the team's performance on third downs otherwise this season.
“Well, we’ve been doing pretty [well] on third downs except for last week. We had a tough day last week," Bowles said on Thursday. "I can make better calls and we can play it better. It goes hand in hand. You move on and you get better from there.”
However, is Bowles' claim correct, that the Buccaneers have done well on third downs throughout the year sans the Washington game? Not entirely.
Entering the Washington game, Tampa Bay ranked No. 15 in the NFL on third downs, allowing conversions 39.8% of the time. That, certainly, is a better mark, standing one spot above league average.
However, that hasn't been the season-long story. Entering Week 7 against Chicago, Tampa Bay ranked No. 22 in the NFL in the same category at 43.8%. Prior to Week 4 against New England, the Bucs ranked No. 29 at 53.2%, their lowest ranking of the year. The Buccaneers have ranked among the bottom nine teams in the league on third down following seven of their nine games this season, and were in the bottom five after the loss to Los Angeles and win over Miami.
The Bucs' third-down percentage improved quite a bit following the win over Chicago and loss to New Orleans, but has since regressed due to the performance against Washington.
Outside linebackers coach Larry Foote emphasized a need for big plays on third down to turn the tide in that department.
“I wish [Tampa Bay's five] sacks came on third down [on Sunday]. We would have been off the field," Foote said on Wednesday. "So, that’s a point of emphasis to make sure on third down we get off the field, and getting sacks is a good way.”
Head coach Bruce Arians provided another reason for the issues on third downs: Creating advantageous situations for opposing offenses to convert after giving up yardage on first and second down.
“I think the big thing was that 10 of them were third-and-1 to third-and-5. So, our first and second down defense wasn’t good enough," Arians vocalized on Monday. "If you’re giving somebody ten third-and-1 to third-and-5s, you’re going to get about 60 percent or 70 percent completed on you. That’s the part that was very frustrating."
Undoubtedly, the most infuriating aspect of Tampa Bay's third-down agonies came during Washington's final offensive drive of the game. The Football Team converted 4-of-5 third downs and scored a touchdown on thir down to cap off a 19-play, 10-minute and 26-second series to seal a victory.
The Buccaneers need to win in situational football at that moment. Instead, they were defeated every step of the way. That can't happen down the stretch if Tampa Bay wants to be a legitimate contender in the playoffs this season.
"Me personally, mentally [I was thinking], 'What’s going on?' You can be beat any week in this league, but a 19-play drive with that type of talent – those guys need to hold each other accountable. Coaches, we have to hold each other accountable," Foote stated.
"But at the end of the day, 19 plays – you have to be able to get off the field with that type of talent. Those guys have to come together and it’s a nice little punch in the gut. I know those guys are going to respond.”
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