Uncharacteristic Red Zone Woes Doom Bucs

Heading into Week 16 of the 2012 NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fielded the third most efficient red zone offense in the entire NFL, trailing only the vaunted attacks in New England and New Orleans.  Red zone efficiency is measured by touchdown percentage – that is, when a team penetrates the opposing 20-yard line, how frequently does it then take it all the way in for six points?

Again, this has been a strength for the ’12 Buccaneers, who had a 65.9% TD rate in the red zone through their first 14 games.  The Patriots stood at 68.8%, the Saints at 68.1%.  Only five NFL teams even hit the 60.0% plateau.  Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s inside-the-20 numbers took a hit on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, and the direct result was a 15-point loss.

Tampa Bay had three red zone possession in Sunday’s game.  None reached the end zone and only one produced any points at all.  As lopsided as the final score of 28-13 might look, that’s a two-touchdown difference, and the Bucs fervently believed they were going to score those two touchdowns during a second half full of offensive advances.

“That was a tough one, man,” said starting left tackle Donald Penn.  “As an offense, we have to convert in the red zone. It would have been a totally different game if we had [turned] some [field goals] into touchdowns…or even had some [field goals]. When were down there, I thought we moved the ball great. I feel like we were on the field for a long time. We hit a standstill when we got in the red zone in this game. It’s tough. I had no doubt in my head that every time we were down there, we were going to score. It seemed like we didn’t, every time. It’s tough; it’s real tough. We had a great week of practice and that was tough.”

The Bucs’ very first drive gained a first-and-goal at the Rams’ seven.  However, a false start followed, and that almost certainly changed the dynamics of the team’s play-calling.  Instead of a potential run up the gut, the Bucs dropped back to pass and Josh Freeman was promptly sacked by Chris Long.  The resulting distance was too much to make up and the team eventually settled for Connor Barth’s 29-yard field goal.

It might be easy to look at penalties as the culprit on Sunday, but that false start was actually the only flag the Buccaneers drew in the entire game.

“We had a lot of missed opportunities,” said Head Coach Greg Schiano.  “We had plenty of chances to win the game. We played our cleanest game, penalty-free. We had one penalty for five yards.”

In the third quarter, the Bucs gained a first down at the St. Louis 14 and then faced a third-and-one at the five.  Jailbreak pressure disrupted a play-action pass attempt and a fourth-down QB sneak didn’t work, partly because the Bucs weren’t able to rush the play as much as they like in that situation in order to catch the defense off-guard.  In the fourth quarter, a first-and-goal at the Rams’ seven came up naught in part because two fade-pass attempts to WR Mike Williams failed to connect.

The Bucs were left feeling as if they had worked for a lot more than the final results indicated.

“Once again, our guys played for 60 minutes, offense and defense, but it just wasn’t quite enough,” said Freeman.  “You talk about those earlier drives where you get in the red zone and go for it on fourth down and don’t get it, those are the ones that if we score two touchdowns, you’re looking at either a tie ballgame or a one-point ballgame with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter. But we didn’t do that. We’re going to have to go back and take a real hard look at ourselves as an offense.”

Added Penn: “We were moving the ball well. I thought Doug (Martin) was hitting the holes well. Josh (Freeman) was doing his thing and moving the ball well. We hit that speed bump in the red zone and that’s really what sums it up.”

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