Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has key statistics that he puts great value in, finding a close correlation between success in those areas and success on the scoreboard. Winning the takeaway battle is always first among those priorities, but he and his staff put considerable value in "explosives" — big plays both for his offense and as allowed by his defense.
Koetter has his own personal evaluation for what constitutes an explosive — I believe it's a run of 12 yards or longer or a pass play of 16 yards or longer. Needless to say, the Bucs have struggled to get more explosives than they allow, which is part of why they're now a 4-9 team.
If you extend the concept to evaluate really big plays — we'll say 40 yards or more — the Bucs are among the NFL's worst in both directions, failing to add the big-play threat they'd hoped to by signing DeSean Jackson, and struggling to keep opponents from getting big plays through the air.
The Bucs didn't allow a play of 40 yards in Sunday's loss to the Lions — the longest they allowed was 38 yards, but their longest on offense was a 23-yard Jackson run, so it's still a relevant time to address this.
On offense, the Bucs have just three plays all season of 40 yards or longer, matching the Browns and Broncos for the least of any team in the NFL. None of these three have come in the last eight weeks — a 58-yard catch by O.J. Howard vs. Giants, 41-yard catch by DeSean Jackson vs. Patriots and 41-yard catch by Mike Evans vs. the Cardinals, all in the first five games of the season. They're also one of nine NFL teams without a run of 40 yards or longer.
Defensively, they've allowed 10 pass plays of 40 yards or more — only the Giants, Chiefs and Texans have given up more. They've only allowed one run play of 40-plus yards, but the total of 11 allowed puts their season differential at minus-8.
Only three teams in the NFL are worse than minus-4 — the Bucs at minus-8, the Texans at minus-8 and the Giants at minus-9. All but five NFL teams are between minus-4 and plus-4, which is to say that most teams, if they give up a lot of big plays, usually they answer with a similar amount. The league's best teams are Seattle (plus-5) and Atlanta (plus-8).
This isn't a new development — the Bucs had just six total 40-yard plays on offense last year, with the four on pass plays tying for the NFL low. Defensively, they gave up 17 40-yard plays last season, with the 16 allowed through the air also matching the NFL high. So in Koetter's two seasons as head coach, his teams have allowed 19 more 40-yard plays than they've had themselves on offense.
Adding big plays on offense was a major theme in spending big to bring in Jackson, who led the NFL in yards per catch last season. Jackson's longest catch is 41 yards this season — for comparison, he had 13 catches longer than that in 2014, with three different QBs throwing to him: Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin III had five each and Colt McCoy had three. Last year, he had five 40-yard plays, and he averaged 6.5 catches of 40-plus yards per season in his first nine NFL seasons before coming to Tampa.
The Bucs have disappointed for a number of reasons, and injuries are certainly among them, but the continued absence of deep passing plays is also a major part of why they've struggled.