Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
17 Oct 2006
by Ned Macey
Tampa Bay's 14-13 win over Cincinnati will be mistakenly viewed as the return to dominance of the once-proud Buccaneers defense. Such optimism is likely overstated, as the Buccaneers' mediocre defense simply took advantage of a struggling Cincinnati offense. Unless Carson Palmer regains his 2005 form, the Bengals will start falling quickly out of the difficult AFC North race.
First things first, and to prevent a slew of angry emails from Cincinnati fans, the Bengals probably should have won this game. Justin Smith sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski during Tampa Bay's game-winning drive. He was charged with a questionable-at-best roughing the passer penalty that prolonged the drive and allowed Tampa to score the game-winning touchdown.
The actual outcome could matter a great deal if Cincinnati finishes one game out of a playoff spot. For the purposes of this article, the last drive matters almost not at all. Whether or not Tampa Bay managed the final touchdown drive, these two teams spent three hours proving they were roughly equivalent. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, being roughly equivalent with the Buccaneers is not good news.
The Bengals charged into the playoffs a season ago behind a dominant offense and an opportunistic defense. The offense was led by Carson Palmer, who emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in football. His devastating knee injury in the playoffs thwarted last season's ambitions, but a miraculous comeback had him back at the helm in Week 1.
It may be time to start reevaluating the comeback, because Palmer is struggling in the early going. According to our advanced statistic DVOA, the Bengals are playing at a higher level on defense and special teams than a year ago. Their offense is a different story. It ranked fifth in 2005, and this year it is a mediocre 15th. Their rushing offense behind the consistent Rudi Johnson struggled on Sunday but has been solid on the year. Their pass offense, however, now ranks 22nd, only one spot ahead of the Gradkowski-led Buccaneers.
Palmer himself has slipped mightily in our rankings. According to DPAR, which measures value over a replacement-level quarterback, Palmer ranked between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady a season ago. This year, he finds himself in the less illustrious company of Brad Johnson and David Carr. He is not a bad quarterback this year, like his fellow ACL survivor Daunte Culpepper, but he is also not the elite player Cincinnati needs to compete for division championships.
Most of the drop in Palmer's production is on his passes intended for The Mohawked One, Chad Johnson. A season ago, Johnson was the second most productive wide receiver according to our advanced statistics. So far this year, he is 47th.
Johnson is facing a number of double teams because of injuries to the Bengals receiving corps. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is still excelling at our advanced metrics and is probably the best second receiver in the league outside of Reggie Wayne. He did, however, miss the Bengals' first two games. Third receiver Chris Henry continues to struggle in his off-field duties to be a law-abiding citizen and has missed the last two games. The only game where Palmer had all three talented receivers was against Pittsburgh, a game the Bengals won 28-20.
As good as these receivers are, if Palmer were so dependent on them, he would be more Jake Delhomme than Peyton Manning. This writer believes that a healthy Palmer is in that elite category of quarterbacks -- if not the equal of the consensus top two, then in the same area as Donovan McNabb. The problem is that Palmer is either not fully healthy or not sufficiently in form due to insufficient off-season work.
Palmer was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack a season ago, going down only 19 times despite over 500 attempts. This season, he has already been sacked 17 times including twice on Sunday. Clearly some of his in-pocket movement is diminished in the early going of this season. The increase in sacks has led to a number of fumbles. Palmer has coughed up the ball eight times already, compared with five in all of 2005.
This situation may be partly attributable to the loss of center Rich Braham, but it's about to get worse. Tackle Levi Jones, possibly one of the five best in the league, left Sunday's game and is now out for several weeks following knee surgery.
More troubling may be that Tampa Bay was geared up to stop the run, often left their defense in man coverage, and still contained the Cincinnati offense. Houshmandzadeh and Johnson both had 100-yard receiving days, but the offense struggled on third down. Palmer went 7-of-12 for 46 yards on third down, but only two completions earned first downs. He also fumbled a snap on a third down. It should be no surprise that a Cincinnati offense unable to convert third downs scored only one touchdown.
The struggles on third down are not unique to this game. Their pass offense is above average on first and second down. On third down, their DVOA is a horrendous -43.6%. They are particularly bad on third-and-long, averaging only four yards on third-and-7 or more with an interception and four fumbles (two lost). This may be where Palmer does not trust his knee. He checks down to a running back before he lets a play develop. When he wants to go deep, he cannot create enough time in the pocket to let his man get downfield.
The mediocrity of the Cincinnati offense kept their point total low enough to give Tampa Bay a chance to win it at the end. Somewhere in Florida right now, fans are happily reassuring each other that Gradkowski is the new spark the Buccaneers need. Gradkowski has been extremely impressive for a rookie sixth round pick. Still, what this game really showed was how Tampa Bay's defense needs to play at a high level for the team to be successful.
Defense has been the Bucs' calling card for the past decade. Between 1999 and 2003, they never ranked lower than fourth in defensive DVOA. They have never had a below-average DVOA in the nine years for which the stat has been calculated. So far this year, even after the strong performance on Sunday, their defensive DVOA of 3.0% is below average and ranks 19th in the league.
One possible explanation is the exodus of assistant coaches. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin remains, but it seems like every other team in the leauge is running a defense with a former Tampa Bay coach. This past off-season, they lost Rod Marinelli to Detroit and Mike Tomlin to Minnestoa. By all accounts, both are outstanding coaches. Still, the defense had survived the departure of Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, and Ron Meeks, so this seems an inadequate explanation.
The primary reason for the decline is quite simply that the stars of the great defenses are getting older, and the young players are not very good. They still start Booger McFarland, Shelton Quarles, Derrick Brooks, Brian Kelly, and Ronde Barber, who were all drafted by Tampa Bay between 1995 and 1999. (Kelly is out with an injury and did not start Sunday). They also start Simeon Rice and Greg Spires, both on the wrong side of 30. Their only starters drafted this decade are safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen.
This is in part a result of the king's ransom paid for Jon Gruden before the 2002 season. Given the Super Bowl that followed, it may be hard to find a Tampa Bay fan who disapproves of the trade. At the same time, this team is desperately short of top-level talent. Going forward, the Bucs have almost no proven young commodities. Running back Cadillac Williams had an excellent rookie season and dominated a suspect Cincinnati run defense on Sunday. Outside of that, this is an aging team whose best days are behind them.
The exception, of course, would be if Gradkowski turns out to be something special. The Toledo grad immediately impressed Jon Gruden, who opted to install him as primary backup from day one. The unfortunate injury to Chris Simms thrust Gradkowski into the lineup, where he has exceeded all expectations.
Relying on a punishing ground game, Gradkowski was able to throw underneath, where his above-average accuracy is an asset. He has good mobility, but unlike many rookie quarterbacks, he is not looking to run at the first sign of trouble. He had only four runs and took only one sack. It is much too premature to make any long-term evaluation. He is worth watching, however, and could provide a level of play at least comparable to what Simms gave them a year ago.
Even so, this team will only go as far as their defense takes them. The Buccaneers tried to revamp their defensive line, the foundation of a successful Tampa-2 defense. They lined nominal defensive tackle Ellis Wyms at defensive end and tried different techniques to get pressure on Palmer. Wyms got both of the sacks in the game, tying his total from a season ago. Wyms, a six-year veteran, is considered a "young" player by Tampa Bay.
After this game, Cincinnati ranks 18th and Tampa Bay 23rd according to DVOA. Things do not get much easier for the Bengals going forward. Their next five games are all against teams with winning records. Unless Palmer can cure what ails him on third down, it seems hard to imagine this team surviving this sort of run. The good news is that Baltimore does not appear as good as it looked early in the season. The bad news is that the real Ben Roethlisberger showed up last week, suddenly making Pittsburgh a dangerous team again. The plan in Cincinnati was to play adequate defense and win with offense. Without a dominant quarterback, that is an impossible task.
For Tampa Bay, the schedule is equally daunting, starting with a home game against an angry Philadelphia Eagles team. Gradkowski will be tested severely in that game. The one thing in Tampa Bay's favor is that they have played reasonably well for three straight weeks, losing to New Orleans on a late punt return and on a last-minute field goal against Carolina. If the aging defense rises up for a few weeks, the Buccaneers will play spoiler a number of times. Their 1-4 start dug them into too deep a hole for them to challenge for the playoffs. Sadly, the future does not look brighter, only older, and this season's eventual 6-10 record could be the first in a series of disappointing seasons.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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