Bucs look to shore up defense against Carolina

by Gary Shelton on October 26, 2017 · 0 comments

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After high hopes, Spence ends his year with one sack./CARMEN MANDATO

After high hopes, Spence ends his year with one sack./CARMEN MANDATO

Thursday, 2 a.m.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, third down has been a coin flip.

Heads, you punt. Tails, you keep on marching.

Too often, they keep on marching.

Almost half the time (49 percent), opponents have picked up the first down on third down. That keeps drives alive, and it contributes to the 30th ranked defense in the league (408.1 yards per game). That has helped the Bucs get off to a disappointing 2-4 record this season.

“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to start winning on third down,” Mike Smith, the defensive coordinator, said. “You can’t be giving up 50

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The Bucs need a pass rush against David./

The Bucs need a pass rush against Newton./TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

percent plus (or) 60 percent on third down. That just extends drives, it wears your players out and it keeps your offense off the field. We have really struggled on third down. Our third-down efficiency is not anywhere near where it needs to be. To me, that’s the first thing — we’ve got to do that.

“Then the second thing is, we’ve got to make sure we continue to attack the football and create some turnovers. The two biggest things that happen in the game is the team that wins the turnover ratio is going to win the game. So, if we can create turnovers and get it on the plus side for us, which we haven’t done as well as we need to. There is a litany of things on the to-do list that we’ve got to get better at. Let’s be real. Through the first six games, not good enough across the board.”

It will be a bit tougher for the Bucs against Carolina on Sunday. Defensive end Noah Spence is out for the year after being put on injured reserve. In his place, the Bucs have picked up defensive end Darryl Tapp.

“It’s just unfortunate,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said of Spence. “Noah’s toughness is beyond question because most guys that have that injury are out three to four weeks right off the bat. It’s the same shoulder that Noah had last year, (but) when it happened in Minnesota he went in and put a harness on and went right back in the game.

“Any time a guy has a shoulder that’s coming out, they’ll let you play in a harness until it starts coming out more often and then the doctors have to shut it down. Noah [has] incredible toughness. He did everything that was asked of him from a rehab standpoint. (It was) just a real unfortunate break for him. Injuries are one thing that nobody has any control over. (They’re) just an unfortunate part of the game.”

Carolina is sixth in the league in third-down success.

Part of that, of course, is quarterback Cam Newton. Newton isn't having a season like he did two years ago when he was MVP, but he's still dangerous.

“It doesn’t matter what he is doing the week prior, or the week before that, or the week before that — he is an MVP and that doesn’t go away,” said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “He is that good and can be that good at any moment, so we have to be prepared for it. I still believe he is the best escape artist we have in this league just because of his size and what he is able to do. He can make plays with his feet. Big arm, one of the strongest arms in the league and he’s got that ‘it’ factor. He is a confidence guy. He feeds off positive energy, so if the team is rolling, he is going to get it going. We don’t want that to happen.”

The Bucs have struggled defensively, and they've been worse lately. Against Carolina, they face a team that scored only three last week.

Still, the Bucs will need to mount a pass rush.

“I competed when I was in Jacksonville against (Dwight) Freeney when he was in his prime,” Koetter said. “When they had Freeney and (Robert) Mathis playing on turf with Peyton Manning as their quarterback — wow. In that dome, unbelievable.

“But Dwight Freeney has retired a couple times now and even though he is going to the Hall of Fame, he is not the Dwight Freeney I remember from my Jacksonville days. Now (Julius) Peppers has 6.5 sacks. I think Carolina is doing a really good job of how they’re using him. They’re spotting him. He’s not a starter right now and they pick their spots for him. He’s still a tremendous athlete [with] unbelievable power [and] great explosion. We were playing him his first stint in Carolina, when I was in Jacksonville, and we made a protection call and Maurice Jones-Drew had to come across the backfield and cut-block Julius Peppers. He came off and told me afterwards, ‘We can’t do that ever again.’ We’ve got a lot of respect for Julius Peppers.”

Last week, the Bucs gave up a tying touchdown in only 45 seconds to Buffalo.

“The first thing that broke down is the play went too long,” Smith said. “The quarterback had about five to five and a half seconds. He was able to step up, so we did not have good pass rush lanes on that specific play and we had two guys out of position in the back end in terms of what we should’ve done with the mix of the receivers and the way that they dispersed. It was all around — defensive line, linebackers and the secondary.

“I keep telling you guys it’s not always what it seems like. We’ve got to do a good job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket first and foremost (and) not allowing him to have five seconds. Then we’ve got to make sure we are on top of our landmarks in where we are supposed to be in our pass coverage.”

Smith reiterated that the Bucs need a better pass rush.

“We’ve had our trials and tribulations in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback this year,” Smith said. “We are trying to mix it up with things that we are doing schematically, we’ve added a player to replace Noah [Spence] that has some experience, but we have not been able to generate the type of pass rush that you need to allow people in the back end to cover. And we’ve got to do a better job of covering guys.”

Smith took the blame for the poor defensive effort. However, a lot of guys can say the same.

“When you get your butt beat, it doesn’t matter if it was last year or this year — it freaking stinks,” Smith said. “It doesn’t feel any different. You have the same amount of sleepless nights. You’re not getting the job done. We’ve got to do a better job in terms of getting these guys prepared to go out and execute the game plan. Obviously, we have got to do a better job of putting a better game plan together. I’m never going to point the finger at anybody else.

“It’s on me, because of the performance of what we have done, it hasn’t been up to the standards that it needs to be.”

The Bucs play Carolina at Raymond James Stadium at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

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