Tampa Bay’s Thursday Night Disaster Looked Just as Bad Through Advanced Analytics

Josh McCown was terrible, Bobby Rainey was fumbling and Atlanta's defense looked like Seattle's. What just happened?

After watching the Falcons march down the field early in last night’s Thursday Night Football contest, it was obvious they were going to win. I – and I’m sure others feel the same way – just didn’t expect them to win the way they did.

Atlanta’s not a bad team. Entering the season, we had them as a near-playoff team, with a projection of 8.2 wins in 2014.

But the Falcons defense has been the biggest question mark, finishing the 2013 season with an Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) score of 144.55, the worst in the NFL. To put this number a different way, had Atlanta thrown the Detroit Lions defense onto the field each week last year (a fairly average one) instead of their own, they would have seen roughly a 120-point swing across the entire season, or well over a touchdown per game.

On Thursday, Josh McCown and company made that Atlanta defense look like Seattle's though. Just how bad was it? Let's take a look at the numbers.

What Just Happened?

As I briefly mentioned above, here at numberFire we love to use our Net Expected Points metric. In essence, Net Expected Points, or NEP, looks at the way a player impacts a play on the football field versus how he should have performed. An interception is clearly bad for a player's NEP, while a conversion on 3rd-and-11 is a positive. You can read up on NEP in our glossary.

Rather than go through each player individually, I thought it'd be helpful to first compare skill position players from each team to show just how much better the Falcons were than the Bucs last night. Take a look at the chart below.

Pass NEPRec NEPTarget NEPRush NEP
Matt Ryan24.67   
Josh McCown-12.22   
Julio Jones 17.6716.71 
Vincent Jackson 4.08-0.61 
Harry Douglas 2.752.75 
Mike Evans 2.230.62 
Steven Jackson   2.06
Bobby Rainey -0.29-1.6-1.93

In addition, here are some additional numbers from backups:

Pass NEPRec NEPTarget NEP
T.J. Yates-0.30  
Mike Glennon-0.36  
Devin Hester 2.242.24
Brandon Myers 0.760.76

Let's start with quarterback play. The Falcons obviously held an advantage at the position entering Thursday night, but exiting, that advantage proved to be huge, as Matt Ryan outperformed Josh McCown by 36.89 points. The sad part is that the difference between the two passers wasn't even large enough for the Bucs to make up the 42 points needed to tie Atlanta last night, so while everyone wants to blame McCown, you certainly have to blame Tampa Bay's defense as well.

McCown's total is pretty alarming, however, as he threw just 12 times. In essence, every time McCown threw a pass, the Buccaneers lost over a point.

At wide receiver, Julio Jones went absolutely bonkers, hauling in a Reception NEP of 17.67 and a Target NEP of 16.71. The small difference in Target NEP and Reception NEP can be credited to his catching 9 of 11 targets, meaning there were only two targets that dinged his overall Target NEP score.

If Julio were to do this each week, he'd total a Net Expected Points score of 282.72. For reference, the best score we've seen since 2000 came from Torry Holt back in 2003, where he added 168.55 points for the Rams on receptions only.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers lost over half of a point every time they targeted Vincent Jackson, despite his touchdown reception. Mike Evans wasn't much better, but he did outperform his teammate last night.

Lastly, we saw a retro version of Steven Jackson, as he compiled a Rushing NEP of 2.06. Running the football is far less effective than throwing it, so his positive score is a solid one. For reference, LeSean McCoy was the best running back last season in terms of Rushing NEP, and his per game points added was 2.32, barely better than SJax against the Bucs.

Bobby Rainey had a tough time holding onto the pigskin, but still turned in a pretty good day, all things considered. Though his fumbles may have handed the lead running back gig over to Doug Martin when he's back and healthy, Rainey showed a lot of life when he wasn't handing the rock to the Falcons.

Lastly, it wouldn't be right if I didn't mention Mike Glennon. He came in for Josh McCown and played a little below average against a defense that really didn't need to be on the field after seeing such a large lead.

I'm sure many will be hoping for a quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay heading into Week 4. For what it's worth, Glennon played below expectation a season ago, but did grade out better than rookies Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel in terms of Net Expected Points.

Can he progress in Year 2 if given the opportunity? At this point, I'm not sure anyone could on Lovie Smith's team.