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17 Oct 2006

Any Given Sunday: Bucs over Bengals

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.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 17 Oct 2006

16 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2006, 9:01am by Nick


by Viva Pedro (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 4:12pm

Watching the replay of the Bucs and Bengals I came away wondering where the accuracy and touch was that made Palmer so devastating. If you watch his footwork, he's stepping into some throws but not all of them. On the throws where he is stepping into the throw and properly transferring his weight, he's often stepping away from the pass rush which is leading to a lot of short balls and passes that are a good yard off the mark. He'll probably correct this once he becomes more comfortable in the pocket, but losing his left tackle isn't going to help.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 4:25pm

So how long does it usually take for third down performance to catch up to first and second down performance (as I've often read that it does on this site)?

by johnt (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 4:57pm

From watching the Bengals games I've seen, it seems like it's less the receivers and more the pressure. Honestly, when Carson began to "excel" it was because he was in a hermetically sealed container where he faced very little pressure relative to almost every other QB. No other elite QB has a OL even close to as good as Cincinnati's. Now that he's facing pressure due to OL injury, he suddenly looks normal again. I'm really not surprised.

by Tim (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 5:05pm

A rabid Bengals fan, I agree with nearly everything in the article. I'm a bit surprised that FO neglected to mention the fact that Eric Steinbach played three different positions on the Offensive Line this week. I was expecting a little more in-depth analysis here. Rich Braham's absence is obviously the main reason for Palmer's being so oft-sacked, and thus a big contributing factor for Palmer's lack of production. The Bengals have also had a complete lack of consistency in the linebacker position with Odell Thurman suspended for the year, David Pollack injured for the season (maybe career) and this past week, Brian Simmons sitting out. The only thing I'll contend with is the false assertion that Cincinnati was "dominated" by Cadillac Williams. Cincy held Cadillac to 56 yards on 18 carries for a 3 yards-per-carry average, sans one 38 yard run. Granted, a good defense needs to stop those big plays. But calling such a performance dominant is akin to me asserting that the Bengals' passing attack dominated the Steelers in last year's playoff game just because of Palmer's 66 yard completion to Chris Henry. But overall a good commentary. I'm hoping my team will get healthy in time to make a run for the playoffs, though it won't be easy...

by Jeremy Billones (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 5:24pm

Re: #4 On a typical day, most teams will bust at least one run of 20+ yards. Removing that "best run" from their stats invariably drops their YPC by a full yard.

So, pulling out the best run and saying "except for that, they were below average" isn't very useful information.

by B (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 5:40pm

I think #4 is right in that the Palmer's lowered production and increased sacks have as much to do with the offensive line problems as they do with his reconstructed knee.

by Booker Reese (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 6:00pm

I think there's some truth to the cumulative age on the defensive side of the ball being a problem for the Bucs, although the biggest weaknesses this year have been at the critical under tackle spot manned by Booger, and the safeties, both of whom are manned by young players. I do think it's a mistake to think that just because the Bucs lost Lovie and Herm Edwards before and survived, that the loss of Marinelli and Tomlin (and Raheem Morris, the new defensive coordinator at K-State) don't sting. The rumors around Tampa are that the replacements aren't cutting it, and that Kiffen had to spend a lot of extra time with the DL during training camp because of it.

I also think that the "cupboard is bare" argument only really works on the defensive side. The offense is quite young outside of Galloway and C John Wade. True, Caddy is the only proven young "star." But TE Alex Smith, and rookies Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph show some signs of being pretty good players in this league, and left guard Dan Buenning was very solid as a rookie last year. In addition, Michael Clayton - a phenom as a rookie and disaster last year - is showing signs of life again.

by Booker Reese (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 6:01pm

Btw, Ron Meeks was not a former Bucs coach. He was on Dungy's staff at Indy though, and may still be for all I know.

by Lou in Cincy (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 6:37pm

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Consider, the Bengals went into this summer looking at the possiblity of missing the franchise centerpiece for the first 4 games (or longer), which would almost certainly have resulted in worse than a 3-2 record. So we here in Cincy should be happy.

On the other hand, said franchise player is obviously playing sub-par football, so we're only slightly better off than we were with anthony wright a qb.

The wierd thing is, all last year i felt the Bengals were playing over their heads a lil bit. So perhaps we're simply seeing a bit of regression to the mean on a team that is still putting the pieces of a championship team together.

It's hard to be patient when you're the fan of a team as historically bad as the Bengals had been in the pre-marvin days, especially after last years tantalizing taste of success.

But mayhaps this is a team that needs to take a step back before it take sthe next step forward?

by Ned Macey :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 8:27pm

Sorry about the Ron Meeks thing. He worked for Smith in St. Louis. I thought Dungy plucked him from Tampa Bay, but he and Tomlin obviously both couldn't be coaching DBs.

Also, Colts have acquired McFarland for a second round pick. Based on McFarland's play so far this year, this is a good trade for the Bucs and probably a worthwhile gamble for the Colts.

by DschAf (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 9:05pm

I think the loss of Dexter Jackson has a lot more to do with downfall of the Buc's number one defense than another year of age. They underestimated the importance of his skill and leadership to their defense, twice now. The Buc's defense took a hit the first time they let him go, and they're suffering again. Now it's the Bengal's defense that's suffering from his absence. Kaesvihorn is o.k., at best, in pass coverage, and awful defending the run.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Tue, 10/17/2006 - 10:17pm

I wasn't paying attention and did this for the Bengals first. The team that's ACTUALLY at issue first, then the Bucs.

On average, a team will have .56 20+ yard runs per game. That means the average team will bust a 20+ every other game, not every game.

The Bucs last year had 11 runs like that (excluding 1 in game 17, a useless game against the hapless saints. These runs appear to be randomly distributed, so we wouldn't have bias, only a smaller sample size issue). This was extremely high rate for the league, at .69. Still, far away from the (at least) 1/1 you claim, this from a team with a very high rate.

What happens when you take away the long runs, then? The Bucs, minus week 17, had 433 runs for 1679 runs, a YPC of 3.88. Without long runs, 422 runs for 1288 yards, for a YPC of 3.05.

That's a .85 swing, a pretty significant number. This does appear to be the largest swing in the league, however.

Does this show a big problem with #4-style analysis? The answer seems to be much more nuanced than at first blush. It appears to depend on the team. TB last year relied upon the big run a heck of a lot, so taking out its big runs might not be as useful. If you see below, the analysis does make sense for Cincinatti, which had much less value out of its boom runs, since they were so much fewer in number, and they had a good YPC even without them.


Last year, the Bengals had .44 20+ yard runs per game, below the league average.

Looking over the course of last year, The Bengals compiled a total of 1882 yards with a YPC of 4.37. Removing these 7 runs, they are left with a total of 1720 yards with a YPC of 3.81. While they weren't evenly spaced, they came against both good defences (BAL, CHI) and bad (CLE, IND).

Week 17 was removed from the data. Week 17 had no long runs, and a lot of short runs (18 for 28), but was a garbage game.

One could make that .5 YPC is significant, but it seems to be a good analytical tool since extremely long gains are rare and randomly distributed. Additionally, there were only 2 30+ runs last year, so setting that at the bar does not change the overall YPC numbers significantly. Very long runs truly are outliers.

As you can see, my opinion changed after looking at TB. This seems to be a pretty team-focused analysis. For teams don't rely on long runs, like IND or CIN, removing a large run is just getting rid of an outlier and shows you more accurately what they normally do.

With a team like TB or ATL? It seems that throwing out the large ones do significant damage to the team's YPC, which would bias analysis.

Frankly, I'm surprised. This is more complicated than I thought it would be.

by Booker Reese (not verified) :: Wed, 10/18/2006 - 12:46am

Re: #11 - I'm a big fan of Dirty Jack, but I think you've been listening to him toot his horn a bit much - I couldn't believe his comments last week, especially since he's already injured.

According to DVOA, the Bucs dropped from 3 to 1 after Jackson left in 2003. That's not a big drop at all, especially considering that the Bucs were a regular MASH unit on D. Brian Kelly was out for the season, Lynch missed a ton of games, Quarles and Jermaine Philips missed a ton of time.

When he came back, he never was healthy. He missed 9 games in 2004, and 5 in 2005. When he was healthy, he was a platoon player, not a full-timer.

by gmc (not verified) :: Wed, 10/18/2006 - 3:45am

3rd down performance could in part be a result of the absence of a different Bengal, 3rd down back Chris Perry, possibly the best of that breed in the league and returning right about...


Not saying this will resuscitate Carson Palmer as an elite QB (only a better OL and some way to keep teams from double/tripling Chad would do that) but it might well rejuvenate the Cincy offense a bit relative to the doldrums of 13 points against a so-so Tampa defense.

by Tim (not verified) :: Wed, 10/18/2006 - 10:55am

RE: #5

My issue is not whether or not Cadillac's one big run was statistically significant. Anybody who watches Cincy will agree that stopping the big run has been a consistent problem with the Bengals D the past couple years (thanks, in part, to Ohalete and Kaesviharn). My issue is with labelling Cadillac's performance "dominant." Dominant implies consistency of performance, and I don't think Cadillac's performance was consistently dominant...it was slightly above average. Lawrence Maroney's performance against the Bengals, however, was dominant. Tiki Barber's performance against the Falcons was dominant. Thanks to #12 for such a detailed analysis of the different styles of running and how long runs impact each team and each game.

by Nick (not verified) :: Fri, 10/20/2006 - 9:01am


I only partially agree with your assesment. True the offensive line hasn't been giving Carson as much time as he enjoyed last season, but more importantly has been the play calling. In 2004, several defenses blitzed the Bengals heavily attempting to "rattle" Palmer. At that time, the Bengals responded effectively by throwing the quick slant to TJ or the lob over the top of the DB covering Chad. It seems that this season both passes are no longer in the playbook.