Let’s face it, the 2017 Buccaneers defense was bad – really bad. They finished dead last in the league in Total Defense compared to 10th in 2016. One of the biggest issues was getting off the field on third down. Believe it or not, the Bucs defense finished #1 in third-down percentage (34%) in 2016. Last season, they were 32nd in that same category (48%). A major reason that they couldn’t stop anyone on third down was their 32nd ranked pass defense that allowed a league-high 261 yards per game through the air and only sacked opposing QB’s a league-low 22 times. Just to compare numbers, the Jacksonville Jaguars finished #1 allowing only 170 yards per game and the Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 56 sacks.
Hence, the 2018 d-line overhaul. Enter Brentson Buckner.
Buckner was the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals for the last five years and in each of those seasons, his d-lines never finished with less than 35 sacks. In 2013, his first year in Arizona, they had 47 sacks. In 2016, they had 48 sacks. He obviously knows what he’s doing. And Jason Licht has given him a loaded toolbox to work with this season.
This offseason brought on some much-needed changes to this defensive front. The aging Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald were not brought back and the cancerous Chris Baker is gone. In their place, free agents Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein were signed in free agency and the Bucs traded for Jason Pierre-Paul. Now the only remaining starters from last year’s d-line is Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Will Gholston. However, Coach Buck and Coach Koetter have both said that the team doesn’t want just four “starters”. They want eight or nine “starters”. They want a solid rotation that allows all of their players to remain fresh for the entire game. Buck has also made the players aware that they’re no longer defensive tackles or defensive ends. They’re all defensive linemen. He wants every player on his front to be versatile and interchangeable. If you look at the players who will likely end up on the final 53-man roster for this team, you’ll see that they have just that.
Mike Smith has already said that his defensive scheme isn’t going to change. They will still be running a base 4-3 defense. The difference will be the way that four-man front is deployed. Barring some unusual circumstances or unexpected injuries, the “starting” front four should be Vinny Curry, Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul. The reserve “starters” should be Will Gholston, Mitch Unrein, Vita Vea and Noah Spence with Will Clarke and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu being possible backups as well. Typically, a team would keep eight or nine players on their d-line. This season, it may even be ten. Almost every player on this list can play both inside and outside. It allows for Buckner and Smith to move these guys around like chess pieces in an attempt to create mismatches. It also allows for the Bucs to change fronts, on occasion, from their base 4-3 to a kind of hybrid 3-4 defense if they want.
Just picture this on obvious passing downs. A 3-4 front with Vea in the middle at nose tackle, McCoy and JPP as the ends, Spence and Kendell Beckwith as the outside LB’s and Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander as the inside LB’s. What an absolute nightmare for an opposing QB that knows he has to drop back. Imagine having a d-line rotation that allows for guys like Jason Pierre-Paul and Noah Spence to stay fresh into the fourth quarter when the offensive tackles are worn down and tired. Think about a 4-3 front with a rested McCoy and Vea in the middle and a fresh Spence and JPP on the outside late in the game. Unrein and Allen were two of the best run stuffers in football last season. What about a 4-3 front with them in the middle and Gholston and Curry outside on early run downs? Not an easy front for teams to run on. What if they have a goal line/short yardage scenario with Vea and Tu’ikolovatu in the middle and Unrein and Allen on the outside? How does anyone penetrate that wall? With so many different personnel combinations, the possibilities are endless.
Buckner must be salivating.
However, it’s not just the pass rush as the run defense could be much improved. With more pressure getting to opposing quarterbacks and more third and long situations, the jobs in the secondary get much easier. No more covering Julio Jones or Michael Thomas for five or six seconds per play. The Bucs corners and safeties should be ecstatic about that aspect, so should the fans.
This defense has the potential to do some special things. This team hasn’t had a player with more than 10 sacks since Simeon Rice had 14 in the 2005 season. I think this d-line will have at least two players hit that mark this year. JPP had 8 sacks last year in his first full season back from his hand injury. He’s had two seasons of 10+ sacks including 16.5 in 2011 and 12.5 in 2014. McCoy was close three years in a row from 2013-15 with 9, 8.5 and 8.5 respectively. I expect both of them to challenge the mark. I also expect Spence to be in the mix as well. That is IF he can stay healthy, which he hasn’t been able to do in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay.
These are exciting times for us Buc Nation, but I’m trying to temper my expectations as much as I can. I remember saying the same thing during camp last year. Even though injuries had a little something to do with it, the defense didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. This year feels different though. This year, they added championship experience with JPP, Curry, Unrein and Allen. All four have played in and/or won Super Bowls. They know exactly what it takes to get the job done. Hopefully, the Buccaneer players listen to them and learn from them. Hopefully, those players can help improve this defense. And hopefully, this defense can lead us back to a championship.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!