Where Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Improve Most for 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IMay 29, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 2: Quarterback Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers huddles with his teammates before taking the field against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 2, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Since their inception, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been synonymous with losers. It started with the 26-game losing streak right out of the gate in 1976, and by coach John McKay’s famous “execution” quote along with the Creamsicle jerseys to define the team’s roots.

The losing arguably got worse in the 1980s, as the team lost at least 10 games in 13 different seasons from 1983-96. Not until Tony Dungy crafted a legendary defensive core did the team discover consistent winning, but even that was fleeting.

Since winning Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season, Tampa Bay is just 69-91 (.431) in the regular season with a 0-2 playoff record. That’s a forgettable decade of football.

The old defensive core is now completely gone following the retirement of 16-year defensive back Ronde Barber, who will likely go into the Hall of Fame one day.

But enter in Darrelle Revis, who the Buccaneers made the big trade for this offseason to reignite the secondary with one of the league’s truly elite defenders. Greg Schiano enters his second year as coach with more talent on defense, and an offense with many of the right pieces but lacking in consistency.

A 7-9 finish was a disappointment last season given the 6-4 start. With this roster, another third-place finish in the NFC South will also be a disappointment.

There is enough in place on this team to win in 2013.

Attacking the Pass Defense

Last season, the pass defense was a constant thorn in Schiano’s side. His group surrendered 4,951 gross passing yards, which is the third-highest total in NFL history—nine times a quarterback exceeded 300 yards, and practically everyone but Brady Quinn had a solid outing against the Buccaneers.

Looking to turn things around this season, what can we really expect after such a vertical shredding in 2012? Can the defense get to an elite level in one offseason?

The following defenses have allowed the most passing yards in a season in NFL history. It is gross passing yards, which means sack yardage is not subtracted. The results in the following season are included in the last three columns. “DPR” is Defensive Passer Rating.

Note: The 1982 Chargers and 1987 Jets had their passing yard totals prorated for 16 games due to strike-shortened seasons.

Now with three teams from last season in the top six (also six from 2011-12 in the top 11), there’s no way all of these defenses are among the “worst ever” in NFL history. This is more of an indictment of today’s pass-happy NFL.

Last year, teams threw on 57.65 percent of all plays, which is the highest pass ratio ever. Yards have gone up ever since the rule change in 2011—which moved the kickoff to the 35—resulting in more touchbacks.

These 14 teams faced an average of 611.8 pass attempts, so it is no wonder they allowed so many yards.

But how awful were these defenses, if they were awful at all? None had a DPR worse than 94.2. The 93.5 for Tampa Bay was the third worst, though it would rank better if adjusted for ERA.

There’s a major flaw with passing stats. Teams that are annihilated through the air efficiently will not face as many pass attempts late in the game, so they will not allow 4,500 yards by season’s end. Teams just start running the clock out instead.

To allow a high volume of yards, you must face a large amount of attempts.

Sometimes that comes from often playing with the lead and teams are throwing to catch up to you, such as in the cases of the Patriots and Packers in 2011. But sometimes you get thrown on because teams abandon the run and know they can have success through the air.

Tampa Bay’s No. 1 ranking in rush defense is mostly a result of teams choosing to take advantage of the pass defense. The 2012 Buccaneers allowed the highest completion percentage of any team on the list at 65.4 percent. Their average of 7.90 yards per attempt is the fifth worst.

Of the 10 teams with full results, we know that they won 57.5 percent of games in the first year. But that fell to 46.7 percent the following season with the DPR getting worse in half the cases.

Only the 1995-96 Bengals saw a big improvement, thanks to the 1996 defense coming up with 34 interceptions. The 1987 Jets had the second-biggest improvement, but that was due in part to the three games with replacement players. Miami’s scab quarterback Kyle Mackey threw five interceptions against the Jets.

These teams did allow an average of 715.2 fewer yards the following year, but the overall effectiveness was still not very high. In the first year, the teams allowed an average of 4,673 yards and had an 85.8 DPR. The following year, the teams allowed an average of 3,958 yards and had an 84.8 DPR.

It is hard to fully revamp a pass defense in one season, but Tampa Bay is in a rare position to try to accomplish that feat. Fewer yards will be allowed this season, but the focus should always be on efficiency, which in this case, means forcing more incompletions and creating more turnovers.

Fixing the Holes in the Ship

The good news for the Buccaneers is that they have enough new pieces to significantly improve that weakness on pass defense right away. No team may have upgraded a unit more than Tampa Bay did with its secondary.

We all know about the Revis trade and how he should be able to return from injury and be a shutdown cornerback again. The schedule is always loaded with No. 1 receivers who need to be contained.

But Tampa Bay also signed safety Dashon Goldson from San Francisco’s defense, which helps to make the secondary younger. Goldson was a first-team All-Pro last season.

Mark Barron should be better in his second season, while Eric Wright can take on a lesser role at cornerback.

If that’s not enough, the Buccaneers used their second-round pick (No. 43 overall) on cornerback Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State.

So this is a defense that has the pieces in place for a long-term secondary. It sure came together quickly.

This will help with a front seven who has young talent in linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster. Gerald McCoy and Da’Quan Bowers are expected to pace the defensive line again.

Defensive end Michael Bennett led the team in sacks (9.0) last year, but he went to Seattle. However, 2011 first-round pick Adrian Clayborn should be returning from a knee injury that cost him 13 games in 2012. The Buccaneers also drafted three defensive linemen in the mid-rounds.

While the defense is gaining talent and experience, the offense returns most of the same starters from last year. Dallas Clark is no longer the tight end, but receiver Kevin Ogletree from the Cowboys should make up most of that production.

Ourlads helped with the creation of this depth chart of potential 2013 starters:

Guard Carl Nicks was one of last year’s big free-agent signings from New Orleans, but a toe injury made him miss nine games. Davin Joseph, the other Pro Bowl guard, missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury. Bring back two healthy guards to stick with left tackle Donald Penn, and you have a better offensive line in 2013.

Vincent Jackson was a major hit at wide receiver as a free agent from San Diego. His 1,384 receiving yards are the second most ever by a free agent in his debut on a new team. He’s a deep threat, averaging a league-best 19.2 yards per reception in 2012, and he also shows up in the red zone with his size.

Doug Martin had one of the best seasons ever for a rookie running back, and with LeGarrette Blount traded to New England last month, it’s all about the Martin show on the ground in Tampa Bay.

There may be a hole at tight end, but Jackson, Martin and Mike Williams should account for a massive percentage of the team’s yardage. That is a fine trio of weapons.

The biggest question mark sits at quarterback, which is the last place you want it to be.

The Real Josh Freeman?

Since being drafted 17th overall in 2009, Josh Freeman has been a bit of an enigma. You can see the raw talent and moments of brilliance, such as his comeback win in Carolina last season.

But outside of his excellent 2010 season, his career has been a disappointment filled with uneven play.

In 2010, Freeman was often calm and collected, leading five fourth-quarter comebacks and throwing 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

For what was one of the best sophomore seasons by a quarterback in recent history, you'd expect such success to continue.

But in the last two years, Freeman is 11-20 as a starter with 43 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. He has only two comeback wins. One of his other game-winning drives came against the Manning-less 2011 Colts (2-14). His completion percentage fell to 54.8 percent last season despite the cache of skill players and success of the running game.

Freeman declined as the season wore on. After a career stretch with five games with a passer rating over 100, he exceeded the 80 mark just once in his final seven games.

Early in his career, Freeman made a name for himself for pulling out several wins with a late game-winning drive. Half of Tampa Bay’s 10 wins in 2010 were won with such a drive.

Freeman started his career with an impressive 6-4 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.

Though he did start with big wins as a rookie over playoff teams like the 2009 Packers and 2009 Saints (Super Bowl champions), in 2010, Freeman won four straight comeback opportunities against teams that would finish with a poor record: Cleveland (5-11), Cincinnati (4-12), St. Louis (7-9) and Arizona (5-11).

On the whole, you could say Freeman’s 2010 success was boosted by playing a weak schedule. Freeman looked lost in home losses to playoff teams such as Pittsburgh and New Orleans. He did not perform well in Baltimore. He was swept by Atlanta, which has been a continuous problem in his career in duels with Matt Ryan.  

One of the “quality” wins for Freeman in 2010 was throwing five touchdowns against playoff-bound Seattle. Of course, the Seahawks were a 7-9 playoff team who rarely kept the games close that season.

Since 2011, the competition has heated up in the NFC, and Freeman’s late-game magic has been a no-show most of the time.

After that 6-4 start at comeback opportunities, Freeman is just 3-13 (.188) in his last 16 attempts.

Add it together, and Freeman’s 9-17 (.346) record at comeback opportunities dips below many of his peers, including 2009 draftmates Matthew Stafford (8-14) and Mark Sanchez (10-17). Freeman also lacks the playoff start both Sanchez and Stafford have made for their teams.

Now, some of Freeman’s recent losses have not been his fault—such as the epic defensive meltdown against the Giants last year and the blown lead to Eagles rookie Nick Foles—but he does not inspire the same confidence displayed earlier in his career.

Perhaps that was never confidence at all.

Maybe “good Freeman” is just a guy who won some close games against bad teams and had a fluky low-interception season in 2010, and the “real Freeman” is more like the mediocre player of the last two years.

Either way, the Buccaneers made a statement by drafting quarterback Mike Glennon out of North Carolina State in the third round. Glennon is basically a bigger, stiffer version of Freeman, so he fits the team’s prototype.

With time running out on Freeman’s five-year rookie contract, 2013 becomes a critical season for him to establish himself as a franchise quarterback. Should he falter on what looks to be his best supporting cast yet, the Buccaneers may simply want to move forward with their backup plan.

One day you’re a young quarterback full of “moxie” and all the potential in the world. The next day, you’re holding a clipboard for a clone who is everything you failed to be.

That’s the harsh reality of the NFL. The 2013 season will tell us who Josh Freeman really is.

Conclusion: Full Steam Ahead?

If the Buccaneers play better defense and can get more of the 2010-caliber Freeman, then there is no reason the team cannot compete for (or outright win) the NFC South crown in 2013. This division has a history of things turning around quickly.

The Falcons are still tough, and the Saints have their head coach again, but the team with the most overall talent in the division right now might be Tampa Bay.

It’s just a matter of turning on-paper talent into on-field results. Tampa Bay did that over a decade ago, but we have been waiting for this team to get back to that level ever since.

There’s no better time than now in 2013.

Worst-case scenario: Freeman flops, ushering Glennon off the bench and putting the Buccaneers in the hunt again for a franchise quarterback next year.

Also, should Revis struggle mightily, that trade will be questioned in hindsight—even if it made a lot of sense when it happened. At least the contract is done in a unique way that protects the team from having to overpay an unhealthy player should it go sour.

But the realistic expectations for the Buccaneers should be a team in the thick of the playoff hunt all year.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.