Sunday night, in front of 62,140 very loud Buccaneer fans, the Bucs defense made a statement to the Saints and the rest of the NFL that they’re back. While Jameis Winston and the injury plagued offense sputtered through 270 yards against a vulnerable New Orleans defense and the special teams miscues led to 5 of the Saints 11 points, the defense wreaked havoc on Drew Brees and his #1 offense. It was an impressive showing to say the least. And it’s becoming a weekly occurrence for Mike Smith’s defense.
First, let’s review Sunday’s game. The Saints came into Raymond James Stadium boasting the most productive offense in football and the league’s leading passer in future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. They left disappointed, abused and defeated. The offense that had been averaging 418 yards and nearly 30 points per game, managed just 294 yards and 11 points against the Bucs. They held Brees to 257 yards on 41 pass attempts and no touchdowns while picking him off three times. They only rushed for 46 yards and were only 3 for 13 on third down conversions. The Saints never made it across the Bucs 47 yard line in the second half. They picked off Brees twice in the final 10 minutes of the game. They held New Orleans without a touchdown for the first time in 22 games. The Saints are only the most recent of a long list of victims of this new speedy, aggressive defense and Brees isn’t the only Pro Bowl quarterback to struggle against them.
In the last 3 weeks, the defense has faced Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees. Three pretty good quarterbacks (typed with sarcastic undertones). All three QB’s accounted for a TOTAL of 521 yards on 109 pass attempts and an average passer rating of 53.5 (the league average is 88). Wilson and Brees were both held without touchdowns. The defense has only allowed 7 fourth quarter points in the last 5 games and has ended each of the last 4 games with a turnover on the opposition’s final possession. Former Buccaneer defensive tackle and Hall of Famer Warren Sapp says “This Bucs defense is choking out some elite QB’s and some pretty good teams” and he would know as a key member of a Super Bowl winning defense. Speaking of that defense, this defense is putting up similar numbers to them in the last 5 games. In 2002, they averaged 12.3 points, 253 yards and 2.4 turnovers per game. During this 5-game win streak, their allowing 12.8 points, 299 yards and 2.8 turnovers per game. They’ve held their last 5 opponents to 21 points or less, the longest stretch since the 2009 season. Another similarity is that this defense is creating pressure and getting sacks with it’s front four while only blitzing 22% of the time. That kind of relentless pass rush obviously helps in pass coverage. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who now has 7 sacks on the season, says “We’re winning because we’re playing together, not turning the ball over and we’re taking the ball away. We’re playing as a team”.
Despite the comparable numbers, defensive end Robert Ayers says “We want to make our own mark and our own legacy”. He adds “I’m not willing to say we’ve arrived. We’re just trying to keep getting better every week”. They’re doing that by creating turnovers…lots of them. They’ve had at least 2 takeaways in each of the last 5 games, the longest streak since the 2008 season. They’ve got 14 turnovers in the last 5 games for a plus 9 ratio and 23 turnovers since Week 5, vaulting them from one of the worst teams in the league to 11th in turnover ratio. Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes tries to explain the drastic change by saying “There’s a lot of things that go into every play on defense. You’ve got to know where people are going to be, know what defense we’re in and what the checks are. We’re doing a much better job of all that, everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing pre-snap”. And it’s definitely showing.
The Bucs are on the verge of the biggest single season statistical turnaround since 1978 when the 16-game season era began. In the first 8 games of the season, they were giving up almost 30 points and 400 yards of offense per game. Since then, they’ve improved those numbers to 12.8 points and just under 300 yards per game. Those numbers don’t reflect how well the defense has been playing since they include the 626 yards and 30 points allowed to Oakland in Week 8 and the 461 yards and 43 points allowed to Atlanta in Week 9. Nobody, including this avid Bucs fan, saw this coming following the lopsided loss to the Falcons. However, I have a theory that may explain those games.
Despite giving up a ton of yards to Derek Carr and his potent Raiders offense, the defense actually played fairly well for most of that game. In fact, they had held one of the top offenses in the league to just 17 points with less than two minutes left in the game. One terrible holding call (that had no effect on the play but completely changed the outcome of the game) and almost a full overtime period later, the Raiders were running off the field victorious. A large portion of those 626 yards came in the fourth quarter and overtime period. The defense was on the field for 90+ plays, which is nearly two full games worth of snaps. Enough to wear any defense out, let alone one that was already thinned out and hampered by injuries. Fast forward three days to Thursday night when they faced yet another one of the top offenses in the league, and the results were similar. Once again, the defense held Atlanta somewhat in check for the first half of football. In the 2nd half, the lingering fatigue from the Sunday game began to creep in and the Falcons ran away with the game by scoring 23 second half points.
After that loss to Atlanta, the Bucs coaching staff decided to revise the way they do things. They changed the way they practiced. They changed the way they held team meetings. They changed the way they studied film. They changed the way they ran the defense. They didn’t change the scheme, they just simplified things. Then suddenly the very next week, in Week 10 against Chicago, the defense that Mike Smith thought would take 5 or 6 weeks to come to fruition FINALLY showed up. Rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves says “Nothing has really changed with the defense, we’re just understanding things better”. The players credit the “awakening” to better communication, not only during the game but in those team meetings and in practices as well. Keith Tandy attributed his game clinching interception in San Diego to something Hargreaves told him about looking for a certain route out of the formation the Chargers were in during pre-snap. Hargreaves turned out to be correct and Tandy played the route perfectly. Game over. They’re communicating better not only at each level of the defense but as a whole unit. And it shows in productivity. Over the last 9 games, the Bucs rank at the top or near the top of almost every defensive statistical category. That includes games against the Raiders, Falcons, Seahawks, Chargers and Saints…all with offenses ranked in the top 10 at the time. Pretty impressive!
Yes, the communication has been key. But another factor in their success has been consistency. Gerald McCoy says “We’re just doing the same things, man. The best teams in the league always do the same things no matter what the situation”. The winning formula seems to be constant pressure on the QB times stopping the run plus good communication in the secondary equals less points and more turnovers. McCoy adds that “It’s our job to keep the other team from scoring. If they don’t score, they can’t win!”. Seems simple enough. And they will need to stick with that formula when they travel to Dallas to face the 11-2 Cowboys. I’m sure the Bucs coaching staff has been studying the game tapes of both Giants and Cowboys games to see what kind of “kryptonite” New York used in their wins. However, I don’t expect the Buccaneers to change things up very much. Whatever they’re doing is working, no matter what team they’re facing and it shouldn’t be any different against the Cowboys. The Giants have shown that, despite their 11-game win streak and domination of a what turned out to be a weak NFL schedule, the Cowboys are beatable. The Bucs are 5-1 on the road this year and the hottest team in the league right now. This could be an “upset” in the making!
The Bucs enter Week 15 at 8-5 having won five in a row and seven of their last nine games. They’ve climbed into the top 10 of the NFL Power Rankings (as high as #7 and as low as #13) according to most sources. They’ve won 8 games for the first time since the 2010 season and for only the 5th time since winning the 2003 Super Bowl. It’s the most games that Gerald McCoy has won since his rookie year. Jameis Winston says “Winning is contagious!”. I would have to agree, but it’s not just winning games. It’s the winning attitude. It’s the winning culture. They’re doing the necessary things to prepare themselves to play winning football week in and week out. The team is playing with a confidence, a swag if you will, that wasn’t there to begin the season. Keith Tandy, who’s been starting for the injured Chris Conte in these last two games and sealed the win for the second consecutive week with his game ending interception, says “We’re just a confident bunch right now, and a confident bunch is a scary bunch”.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter is happy for the veteran players who have been here. He says “Some of these guys on defense have been beat up for a few years. It’s great to see them playing with confidence and having success”. The team is winning games by playing consistently good, complimentary, team football. They’re having fun doing it. And we, as Bucs fans, are having lots of fun watching them do it.
I am and have always been a Buccaneers fan (PEWTER AND RED TIL I’M COLD AND DEAD) but the last 13 years have been brutal for us fans of Tampa Bay. Four winning seasons and one playoff berth since 2003 really takes it’s toll. We are long overdue! It’s nice to be watching meaningful football in December for a change. The Bucs are tied with Atlanta for the NFC South division lead and hold the 6th playoff spot right now…but none of that means anything if they don’t take care of business in AT&T Stadium. A win in Dallas gets them to 9-5 and helps them keep pace with the Falcons who play a bad 49ers team this week. A win in Dallas also sends a message to everyone everywhere that Buccaneer football is back…and that should make all the other NFL teams very nervous!
To all the Buc Maniacs traveling to Dallas, you’ve got some high expectations to live up to set by our BUCCAHOLICS in San Diego, so you’d better get loud! And as always…GO BUCS!!!