Defense would be the key to another Bucs’ rise

by Gary Shelton on August 28, 2015 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Friday, 6 a.m.

Smith needs for  his defense to pave the way to improvement./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Smith needs for his defense to pave the way to improvement/ANDREW J. KRAMER

Back then, we were hoping for an offense, too.

Back then, it was a defense that grew great while we were barely watching.

It happens this way. Watching the National Football League is to be mesmerized by the quarterbacks, and by the great running backs, and by the elusive wide receivers. Watching the National Football League to be dazzled by the razzle and overwhelmed by a powerful offensive line. It is a special blend of skills, of speed and strength and savvy, that can make a scoreboard explode.

Defense? Defense is messy. Defense is rough. Defense is reckless. A great defense is a bunch of tough guys making a muscle.

And so it was the last time a feeble franchise rose from the rubble, too. We were

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McCoy leads a defense that has to be one of the league's most feared./ANDREW KRAMER

McCoy leads a defense that has to be one of the league's most feared./ANDREW KRAMER

consumed with whether Trent Dilfer's career could be saved, and how much impact a free agent named Alvin Harper might have, and whether Errict Rhett would ever end his holdout.

And while we were all talking about it, a defense began to jell. The defensive tackle, a fat and unhappy kid named Warren Sapp, became a force. The linebacker, a blinding runner named Derrick Brooks who had been stuck his entire rookie season on the wrong side of the line, turned into a tackling machine. The safety, a striker named John Lynch who everyone thought of as just a linebacker in the nickel defense, became one of the finest players of his generation. There was Hardy Nickerson and Shelton Quarles and Chidi Ahanatu.

Man, could they play.

This is not to say that the current Bucs will ever be anywhere close to what those guys were. Yes, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David have special skills to, but they aren't Sapp and Brooks yet. No one is Lynch. No one is Nickerson.

But the situation is similar. Like then, like always, we are waiting for an offense to show up. We cannot get enough of quarterback Jameis Winston. We are in love with the receivers. We are intrigued by the comeback of Doug Martin. There are some skills on the offensive line.

Let's face it, however. If this is going to be a special season, it is going to have much to do with the defense, and we all know it. Around here, we dream of offense, but we know defense. We have witnessed greatness on that side of the ball. We have seen excellence. We have seen urgency.

But if you go back in time, to that off-season between 1995 and 1996, you will find a familiar mess.

Back then, the Bucs' defense was coming off a year when they were 27th in the NFL. No one had more than five sacks. The secondary didn't cover as much as it chased. You could spend a day arguing over whether Sam Wyche's last year here was a bigger mess than Greg Schiano's.

Oh, things didn't turn around instantly once Tony Dungy came along, either. The Bucs gave up more than 300 yards on offense in four of their first six games (but only twice more in the last 10 games). The offense was so horribly awful that the defense didn't have a chance. Consider this: In four straight games, the Bucs held their opponents to 13 points; they won only one of the games.

But the Bucs won five of their final seven games, and after that season, they got used to dragging an offense that never got good enough toward the playoffs annually.

That's where we have to come in this time, too. Yes, the Bucs were better after the week 7 bye last year, but they were still only 25th in the league. They didn't make an afternoon hard for an opposing quarterback on very many Sundays.

"I think the intensity has increased quite a bit for a period of time.'' Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “I think we’re in a pretty good place. The expectation that what you have to do to become a football team – guys came out ready to play. We were playing a good football team – a playoff-caliber team – and you need to play that way. But for us to see exactly what we can be, you get confidence once you start having some success against (an opponent). We’re not Tennessee-ready yet, but guys are starting to get it.”

McCoy says the Bucs are starting to feel at home in this defense. And the more comfortable the Bucs are, the less comfortable opponents should be.

"Just growth as a team – our abilities and knowledge of the game. An example that is a difference in how we rushed the passer Week 1 of the preseason as opposed to Week 2,” McCoy said. “Just learning from our mistakes and realizing there is little things that have to be done better. Rush lanes are huge in this league.

"We’re playing a quarterback this week that I had the pleasure of playing with. If you give him a seam he will tuck (the football) and run. We definitely have to be in our rush lanes with him. Leading into Week 1, obviously [Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota] can run. Rush lanes are huge up front and just covering each other up. On the back end, just being on your keys and everybody individually doing their job. I think if we grow mentally we can get over that hump to start finishing games out.”

McCoy said different parts combine for a complete defense.

"It’s a team sport for a reason,'' McCoy said. “This defense we play, the Tampa-2, is predicated off how the front four plays, whether it is in the run or pass, but definitely in the pass. Coach [Lovie Smith] always says rush and coverage have to work together. Coach [Joe] Cullen always tells us four is one. Of course you will have guys around the league that one-on-one, individually are better than other guys, but if you look around the league a lot of these guys who have high sack numbers they are not doing it by themselves.

"They may benefit from it a lot of the time, but they are not doing it by themselves. These teams who have high sack numbers – not individually, but as a team – they usually work together well. Guys just kind of feel each other while we are rushing. Me, knowing how I rush, I know I’m going to catch a lot of double teams. I was just telling the guys I’m not a selfish player. I’m out here to make everybody around me better. If we work together then the rush can come alive. If I take up two that frees somebody up and I don’t mind doing that. We just have to do that across the whole unit. Me personally, I feel like we have a couple guys in the room that can be those standout guys and get to that double-digit number we are looking for, but it’s going to take a unit to do it.”

At times, it might be hard to distinguish a defensive tackle from a defensive end. As long as either is on the quarterback, who cares?

"We have a lot of guys upfront like you mentioned that are hybrids – they can play [inside and outside],'' McCoy said. . They will only be as good as they work to be as far as perfecting their craft and their skill set. Me personally, I work to rush from the inside. If I had to go outside I believe I can do it, but what I try to perfect is what I do on the inside.

"Those guys, if they work on their skill set they can master being an outside and inside guy. You have Henry Melton who is a Pro Bowl talent and he started at end for us this week, but he has also played three-technique. Will Gholston has done it. George Johnson has even done it. Coach Cullen has done a great job of letting guys go in and out even in pass rush one-on-ones and third down periods and two-minute drill, he lets the ends go inside, he lets some tackles go outside and the reason being is he wants the four best rushers on the field regardless of who they are (or) where they have to play.”

Hey, the corollary isn't perfect. There was a lot more skill separation between offensive talent and defensive talent in Dungy's day. And we have seen his story completed; we have not seen Smith's.

But if the Bucs are going to grow into a big-boy team once again, however, it has to start on the same side of the ball. It has to start with Gerald and Lavonte and Kwon and Bradley and the rest of them.

In other words, it isn't the Bucs who have to stop here. It's everyone else.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Schulz August 29, 2015 at 7:48 am

We can only hope that the Bucs stop those stupid unnecessary penalties.
Maybe when their final roster is decided, and these players stop playing for their jobs, things will improve.

They have a pretty good QB situation, but without a decent O line, it could be business as usual.

It looks that it could be a hope for the best, and expect the worse year.

GO Bucs

Reply

Cecil DeBald August 28, 2015 at 6:10 pm

I long for offense…until I see several of those 71-68 college football games, then I long for defense…until I see several of our Bucs’ 6-3 games, no matter who wins but the games are usually against the Bears… But I agree with you, Gary, if it’s going to happen it’s going to start on the D side of things – after all, it wasn’t the Bucs that hired Chip…

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