Tampa Bay’s 24-23 loss to the Falcons on Sunday wasn’t final until Josh Freeman’s Hail Mary pass hit the end zone turf after careening through a thicket of red and white jerseys. The Bucs were forced into a very low-percentage situation by that point, however, with the real final blow coming about a minute and a half earlier on the fourth-quarter game clock.
Immediately after the two-minute warning, the Falcons ran Jacquizz Rodgers to the left and he was stopped after a gain of one yard by Adam Hayward. The Bucs used their first timeout with 1:55 left on the clock, with the Falcons facing a third-and-five at Tampa Bay’s 37. At this point, a pass had a much better chance of converting the third down and allowing the visitors to drain most of the rest of the clock, but it also could be a big gift to the Buccaneers if it proved to be a clock-stopping incompletion.
The Falcons elected to roll the dice on a pass and Matt Ryan hooked up with Roddy White for a gain of eight on a quick slant that was actually fairly well defensed by CB LeQuan Lewis. By the time Tampa Bay got the ball back at its own 38, there were only eight seconds left in the game.
“That’s a tough decision and that’s what the head coach gets paid to do,” said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano about his counterpart, Mike Smith. “Do you throw it there or do you run it, milk it, punt it down? But it was a big throw and a big catch. Our guy competed, it’s not like he didn’t compete, [White] just did a better job than we did on that play.”
The problem for the Buccaneers’ defense in the last three weeks has been their opponents gaining the upper hand too often in all third downs, not just that crucial one against the Falcons. It should be noted, of course, that this “problem” has not stopped Tampa Bay from winning two of those three games and falling just a point shy of a sweep on Sunday. Still, the Bucs’ defensive trend on third downs has been heading in the wrong direction lately, and it’s something they would like to get turned around for the playoff stretch drive.
Despite starting the season 1-3, the Buccaneers actually played very good third-down defense in that span, allowing conversions on just 14 of 50 attempts, or 28.0%. Over the next month, the numbers worsened, as the team allowed a third-down coversion rate of 42.4% (25-59).
That second number is obviously higher than the Bucs’ expected but not terribly out of whack. The NFL average for third-down conversion so far this season is 38.5%. It’s in the last three games that the issue has become acute, as the Chargers, Panthers and Falcons have combined to convert 60.0% of their third-down tries. Each of those three teams finished the game over 50%, which is usually not a formula for success.
In all three cases, the Bucs’ defense posted a better third-down rate after halftime. And, in fact, the team’s overall splits show the same trend, with opponents converting 46.3% of their chances in the first half and 38.9% in the second half. That, and the team’s early-season success, suggest that the Bucs are capable of playing more effective third-down defense. Schiano says the needed improvement is not a simple matter of just scheme or personnel or execution.
“When you are struggling in a particular area, it’s usually all of the above,” he said. “You go back to early in the year and we were doing well on third down. We need to just kind of regroup, take a breath and see if we can’t get that [right].”