Bucs’ defense has reason to be hopeful, too

by Gary Shelton on August 8, 2017 · 4 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Kwon Alexander has become a leader of the defense./CARMEN MANDATO

Kwon Alexander has become a leader of the defense./CARMEN MANDATO

Tuesday, 3 a.m.

Yeah, but what about the other side of the ball?

By now, there are citizens of Borneo who can tell you all about Jameis Winston, and there are those in Calcutta who will offer that Mike Evans makes for a nice target, and some in Antartica who will bring up DeSean Jackson's speed and others in Paraguay who will sing the virtues of O.J. Howard.

But who is going to rush the passer?

Who is going to tackle the running back?

Who is going to cover the receiver?

It's a simple theory, really. It doesn't matter if the Bucs average 34 points a game if they give up 35. In the NFL, outscoring the opponent is a risky way to live.

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McCoy chases down Doug Martin/CARMEN MADATO

McCoy (93) chases down Doug Martin/CARMEN MADATO

The thing is, there is reason for optimism. The Bucs were better on defense last year than the year before. In their last eight games, in fact, the Bucs were pretty darned good. They allowed the fourth fewest points over the last half and led the NFL with 13 interceptions. They tied for the league low with six touchdown passes allowed and allowed opposing quarterbacks the second-lowest rating in the league at 72.9. Their 21 sacks was the fifth most in the league.

And still, people want to talk offense because, well, the Bucs have rarely had an offense.

Grimes intercepts a pass by Winston./CARMEN MANDATO

Grimes intercepts a pass by Winston./CARMEN MANDATO

Also, it seems that some critics aren't yet convinced that the Bucs have a decent defense, even though the team beat Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego, New Orleans (once) and Carolina during the second half of last season.

Still, this is the NFL. There is always proving to do.

Defensive end: Noah Spence, Robert Ayers and William Gholston.

Breakthrough player: Spence.

Underrated: Gholston.

Best season: Ayers in 2015.

The burden is on Spence, who has won the on-paper star of the position. Ayers has said he'll push 15 sacks. That's a lot for a guy who had 5.5 as a rookie, but Spence was injured much of last year. Still, he weighs 242 pounds. That's a lot of mass to give up to opposing tackles.

“We think Noah has got a chance to be a four-down player for us," said defensive coordinator Mike Smith. "We don’t feel like he’s just going to be a designated pass rusher. We’re going to be a rotational group up there with the defensive line. We want to make sure that we don’t play the guys as many snaps as we did last year. That was

Justin Evans ran with t he first team Monday../CARMEN MANDATO

Justin Evans ran with t he first team Monday../CARMEN MANDATO

one of the things that we looked at, we felt like we have to do a better job of rotating the defensive line. But, Noah has progressed. He missed the offseason, but thus far through camp he’s done a really good job.”

Defensive tackle: Gerald McCoy, Chris Baker, Clinton McDonald

Breakthrough player: Chris Baker.

Underrated: Clinton McDonald.

Best season: Gerald McCoy (2013).

McCoy is still a Pro Bowler, and he's sworn to finish games better this season. If he does that, he might not only make the Pro Bowl again, he might make the playoffs for the first time.

“We would like to keep him fresher in terms of the number of snaps that he is going to play," Smith said. "But, it’s hard to sit there and say, ‘Gosh Gerald is on the sideline, let’s get him back out there.’ But we know long-term, maybe not in a specific game, [but] for the season it’s going to help us. Gerald is one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the NFL. Everybody knows where he’s going to be, you can’t hide him. If you try to move him from one side or the other, they’re going to identify him and they’re going to make sure that they are going to give as much resources that they possibly can to slow him down. He’s having a heck of a camp. He’s a special, special player and a man.”

Linebacker: Kwon Alexander, LaVonte David, Kendall Beckwith, Devante Bond.

Breakthrough performer: Kendall Beckwith.

Underrated: Kwon Alexander.

Best season: Lavonte David (2013).

It should be the strongest part of the Bucs' defense with Alexander and David. Both players can run and both are good tacklers. Alexander has slowly emerged as the better player of the two, but that can change by the week.

“These guys, they’re going on their third year working together," Smith said. "They have a good understanding of what each other is going to do and I think they are interchangeable. We call them the ‘Mike’ and the ‘Will’ based on the formation or based on the defense that we have. Sometimes, Kwon is the ‘Will’ and Lavonte is the ‘Mike.’ So they are interchangeable, they are run and hit guys. They have a good understanding and really they are the guys, they and Gerald (McCoy) and Robert (Ayers Jr.) are the guys that are going to be the leaders and the

Hargreaves should be better in his second season./CARMEN MANDATO

Hargreaves should be better in his second season./CARMEN MANDATO

mentors up front. We got to have two or three (leaders) at each level and I think we are in good shape at the linebacker position.”

Cornerback: Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Ryan Smith.

Breakthrough performer: Vernon Hargreaves.

Underrated: Ryan Smith.

Best season: Brent Grimes (2009).

A year ago, Hargreaves wasn't aggressive enough. He's worked to make that better this off-season, and he goes with the ageless Brent Grimes. It's a good duo that will see heavy work with the receivers the Bucs are playing.

"Brent physically has the physical traits of a very young man even though he’s north of 33, 34 years old," Smith said. "He’s special. He plays a lot bigger than he is, his measurable. He can jump out of the gym, he can contort his body, and he’s a physical football player. Brent I think is a guy that is going to play as long as he wants to play. Look at where he’s at right now, he doesn’t look like he’s on the backside of his career.

“He had a great season, he had a lot of plays on the football. We’re hoping that he will continue that trend, that’s it’s going to continue to go upward. He has a great understanding of splits, he’s going to be a great mentor for Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith. They get a lot of knowledge from him.”

Safeties: Keith Tandy, Chris Conte, Justin Evans, J.J. Wilcox.

Breakthrough performer: Justin Evans.

Underrated: Keith Tandy.

Best season: Tandy (2016).

The Bucs didn't make enough plays in the first half of 2016. That ended loudly, however. Safety was the reason for victories over the Chiefs, Seahawks and Saints. The Bucs have to find the best mix between Tandy, Conte, J.J. Wilcox and Justin Evans.

Evans worked a lot with the No. 1 defense on Monday

“We’re starting to get on a ‘pitch count’ with some of our older players, so we wanted to give some guys some rest and we definitely need to get Justin going," Smith said. "Justin, most of the reps he’s played is he’s played at free safety, he hasn’t had the ‘splash’ plays that everybody thinks they are going to have. But when you’re a deep safety, you’re hoping your deep safety is not having to make a bunch of plays. We’re going to start moving him around and he’s going to be cross-trained to play both the strong safety and the free safety. He’s been doing a nice job. Unfortunately for both he and (J.J.) Wilcox, they did not have the opportunity to spend a whole lot of time with us in the offseason and our OTAs.”

Steve Tu'ikolovatu hopes to get into a playing rotation./CARMEN MANDATO

Steve Tu'ikolovatu hopes to get into a playing rotation./CARMEN MANDATO

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill MYERS August 8, 2017 at 9:49 am

Coach Smith is doing a great job. And the Bucs are lucky to have him back this season. This team will continue to get better as long as they can keep the coaching staff intact. The Monte Kiffin era is a good example as I can think of. The real test will be when their successful efforts open up opportunities for advancement in other places. It is going to happen. How do the dynasty teams such as the Patriots seem not to miss a beat in that area?

Reply

Gary Shelton August 8, 2017 at 10:58 am

Bill, that’s a good question. I think there are a rarity of coaches (and less every day) whose sheer will powers a team. Belichick is like that. When I covered Shula, I thought he was like that. Walsh, in a different manner. Parcells. Most coaches are ceos, delegating and building consensus. Koetter is like that. I thought Dungy was, too. I remember Dungy once wishing aloud that an assistant coach of his would use Karl Williams more on the punt return. You’re the head coach! Tell him! But Tony had been an assistant, and we wasn’t going to step on toes.

If you look around, however, a lot of teams miss badly looking for another Belichik.Thely hire a Schiano or a Perkins, and they simply aren’t good enough.

I think most of the time, most of it, a team is better off with a team leader like Koetter. But that doesn’t change the wishes of owners.

Reply

Bill MYERS August 9, 2017 at 10:08 am

You once did a article on sucessful QB and Coach matchups I think. Of course Belichick and Brady were at the top of the list. Probably another fantasy, but can you foresee the same relationship with Winston and Coach Koetter some day?

Reply

Gary Shelton August 9, 2017 at 10:41 am

There is a lot of potential there, isn’t there. I could see them climbing higher, but it would come after championships. Belichick and Brady, Walsh and Montana, Shula and Marino set the standards. But if the records keep falling, and the team keeps getting better, it would be great to compare. The winning has to start, though.

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