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Sunday, Sep 24, 2017
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Bucs' offense downright dismal on third down

TAMPA — Tuesdays are long days for NFL coaches. They usually show up for work around 7 a.m. and typically stay until well past 10 p.m., drawing up their Sunday game plans, often eating breakfast, lunch and dinner as they go.

This past Tuesday was even longer than that for the Buccaneers' coaching staff — at least for the coaches on the offensive side of the ball.

Saddled with an attack that has slid from ninth overall a year ago to 32nd this year, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and his staff worked overtime trying to improve the third-down conversion rate that has crippled the offense.

“Normally you allocate X amount of hours to you and your staff talking about protections and schemes and that, but this was a case of measure twice, cut once,'' Sullivan said. “We're definitely in that mode right now with third down.''

No matter how often they measure it, the Bucs have been coming up on the short end of the stick on third down for a while. Their 32 percent conversion rate is the worst in the league, and it's falling fast.

Though the Bucs have compiled a 4-2 record during the span, they have converted only 16 of their past 82 third-down attempts (19.5 percent), including just six of their past 35 (17.1 percent).

Included in that most recent stretch are two 1-for-10 efforts — one three weeks ago during their 27-6 loss at Carolina and another Sunday during their 33-14 loss to the 49ers at Raymond James Stadium.

The problems left Bucs coach Greg Schiano wincing at the mere mention of them and shaking his head Wednesday, when he said a variety of factors have contributed to his team's third-down nosedive.

“Some of it is that we've been facing some good defenses, but as I've said before, you're going to see some good defenses in this league,'' Schiano said. “So that is a factor that has to be included.

“But (poor pass) protection is also a part of it, and (our receivers not) getting uncovered has been an issue. We have to be able to get off of man coverage. We've struggled with that as well, no doubt about it.''

Something else the Bucs have struggled with is making good yards on first down. They are averaging 4.77 yards per play on first down, which ranks 30th in the league, and the root of their third-down issues might lie there.

The Bucs' inability to move the ball effectively on not only first down but second down, as well, has forced them to face what seems like an inordinate number of third-and-long situations in recent weeks.

In their past three games, the Bucs encountered 26 third-down situations in which they needed at least 7 yards to get a first down and 16 in which they needed to gain at least 10 yards.

“Yeah, I think the biggest problem has been first and second down,'' quarterback Mike Glennon said. “In the NFL, when you get into those third-and-long situations, it's almost impossible to get that first down.

“That's why I think the biggest thing for us to do is to stay on schedule and get into third-and-4 or less and situations where, just statistically, the percentages are much higher.''

The chances of converting third-and-short might be greater, but third-and-short hasn't necessarily been a panacea for the Bucs. In their past three games, they converted just two of seven situations of third-and-4 or less.

“It's been a real issue,'' Schiano said of the third-down dilemma. “And while third-and-8 may not be ideal, you still need to be able to throw the ball and catch it and convert it. That's not abnormal in this league.''

Asking a rookie quarterback to convert those plays isn't abnormal, either, but Schiano didn't throw a lot of the blame for the third-down woes on the shoulders of his rookie quarterback, Glennon.

“I wouldn't say that that's a big part of it,'' Schiano said. “He reads it out pretty well and, again, no one's perfect. I'm sure he's read one incorrectly. But that's not the big issue of it.''

Schiano even defended the decisions Glennon made several times last week against the 49ers to throw to targets running routes short of the first-down markers, saying the 49ers had a lot to do with that.

“Certainly, on the initial read on a third-and-8, the play is going to be for more than 8 yards,'' Schiano said. “And usually the second read is going to be for the first down, too.

“When you're throwing the ball to checkdowns or routes beneath the sticks, unless you see the guy come shooting out and you give it to him right away, that's a run-and-catch situation and that's a play by design.

“When you see late in the down that the ball gets thrown beneath the stick, that means everything was taken away above the stick or at the stick and you need to give it a shot at least. It's better than taking a sack or scrambling for no gain.''

The Bucs have been scrambling for answers to their third-down dilemma for a while now, and their plan to correct the problem calls for some extra practice time to be devoted to that venture this week.

Already, though, the Bucs believe the extra time their coaches devoted paid some dividends.

“I feel good about where we're at right now,'' said Sullivan, whose sentiments were echoed by Schiano.

“It's definitely been a challenge for our offensive staff,'' Schiano said. “But we have some things (in our game plan) this week that hopefully will help us and help the offense be a little bit better.''

It can't get much worse.



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Twitter: @RCummingsTBO

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