For years any mention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and thoughts of the defense that was fast, attacked and forced turnovers. This was the doing of Monte Kiffin and Tony Dungy bringing the “Tampa 2″ into town in the mid 1990′s. For over fifteen years the Buccaneers had a top ten defense that was always tops in the league in takeaways.
While the system was great, having players like Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks didn’t hurt. For years they were fixtures in the pro bowl, and leaders across the league in stats and reputation.
A weird thing happened on a monday night game against the Carolina Panthers in 2008. Coach Kiffin annoufnced that he was following his son into the college ranks, and with that announcement the defense went with it. They allowed over 300 yards on the ground that night, and in the following three seasons the defense, specifically the run defense never recovered.
Over Raheem Morris‘s tenure as head coach of the Buccaneers he still implemented a lot of the scheme that Kiffin taught him but it never was right. Even in the 2010 season when the Buccaneers went 10-6 you always held your breathe every time the Buccaneers were on defense. When a team committed to the run, they succeeded and usually big over that period of time, as the Buccaneers allowed over seven thousand yards on the ground over those three years.
When Greg Schiano took over this past year he preached getting back to the fundamentals and being a physical football team. Well through three weeks they have been exactly that. The pass defense isn’t close to what it used to be, but the majority of those yards have came off of big plays.
Coach Schiano hit on that this week when he said, “I wouldn’t call us a bad pass defense, we’ve just been unfortunate with the big plays.” Anyone that has watched the defense play can see the instant difference and it’s not even close. Most analysts didn’t give the Buccaneers a chance because of how horrendous the defense was last year.
The run defense has seen the most impact, leading the league right now in that category. The overall talent across the defense looks like an entire different team, although there is only three different starters from the opening day defense of 2011. The biggest difference has been up front, and mainly because of the play of Gerald McCoy.
McCoy has become the player many thought he could be when selected third overall in 2010. He has been a disruptor in both the run and pass game, making his impact in the backfield in every game this year. Along with McCoy, Michael Bennett has been an absolute terror on defense. Like McCoy, Bennett has excelled in both the run and pass game and is tied with McCoy for the team lead with three sacks.
Another big difference has been the line backing corps. Last year they were washed out of plays, and simply looked like they didn’t belong in the NFL. That’s all different this year and that credit has to go to linebackers coach and former player Bryan Cox. He has the entire linebacker corps playing much improved football. Mason Foster looks more mentally ready each game, and is second in the NFL in solo tackles.
The biggest difference maker of the linebacker’s though is by far Lavonte David.David had a first round grade by many draft experts, but slipped to the end of the second where the Buccaneers traded up for him. Since day one you could see his skill, and Schiano gave him the responsibility of calling the defense and he’s flourished. The coaching staff has even been able to make strong side linebacker Quincy Black look good. For years Black has been the guy that looks like Tarzan, but plays like Jane.
The secondary hasn’t been great, and a lot has to do with the corners being stuck on an island. Aqib Talib was torched against the New York Giants, but bounced back nicely last week limiting Dez Bryant to under seventy yards. Eric Wright has had his ups with an interception for a touchdown, and his downs getting beat on deep plays, but should have had a fumble return for a touchdown and is looking better each week.
E.J. Biggers is finally healthy and should help the corners out. While many criticized his play in 2011, he played very well in 2010 and had the numbers to back him up. Having Biggers back should help immediately as it gives them three good corners to rely on, and not play musical chairs with the nickle for the rest of the year.
The safety play has been light years different due in main part to Ronde Barber. He has made the transition to free safety smoothly and is paired with rookie Mark Barron. Barron brings a physical presence that it has lacked since John Lynch left town. While he’s made some minor rookie mistakes, for the most part Nick Saban coached him well and he’s as NFL ready as they come.
Overall the defense has a lot of room to improve, but the difference from last year is frightening. If they can stay healthy, I can’t wait to see how they settle in and gel together. Either way it’s a pleasurable thought to know that when counted on they actually have a good chance to make a stop this year.