Bucs hope they improved on defense, too

by Gary Shelton on May 11, 2017 · 0 comments

in general

Thursday, 4 a.m.

On paper, they are a scoring machine in waiting.

On concept, they will have receivers streaming down the field, daring the defenses to stop them.

In theory, they will have a quarterback who will have his pick of who to throw touchdown passes toward.

In actuality, however, the question is this: Will the Bucs play enough defense to stop their opponents in 2017? After all, what good is scoring 27 points a game if you surrender 28?

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Why might the defense be better? Oh, better safety play: second-round draft pick Justin Evans and free agent J.J. Wilcox. Better communication: Last year, defensive coordinator Mike Smith was new. The addition of a defensive linemen into the playing rotation: free agent Chris Baker. New linebacker Kendell Beckwith could help.

Is it enough? Last year, the Bucs ranked 23rd in the NFL in yardage and 15th in points allowed. Both stats are skewed by the fact that Tampa Bay started the season slowly as it tried to adjust to Mike Smith's new defense. This year, that defense has to play against Tom Brady, Matt Ryan (twice), Cam Newton (twice), Drew Brees (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer.

“When you’re not sure about what your job is and if we haven’t done a good enough job making sure, they don’t want to talk because guys don’t want to be wrong,” said defensive coordinator Mike Smith, talking about last year's slow start. “I told them, ‘We’ve got to get over that. We’ve got to go through this learning process that you go through as a defensive football team.’ I’ve talked to them about being more verbal. Unfortunately, in our society today we don’t talk enough. We text a lot, we Snapchat but we don’t talk a whole lot. I told our guys, ‘Look, I think we probably would be a lot better if we all took our phones out there and texted to one another.’ We probably wouldn’t have the same mistakes that we have. We’ve made a conscious effort about since after the Atlanta game last year about making sure that we’re communicating and collaborating. I think we’ve gotten into a groove.

“We’ve had to go back over it and make sure everybody understands how we’re doing it in our offseason program. It’s critical for us. The game has gotten very complicated. The days of two backs, tight end in a normal alignment, and two wide receivers, it doesn’t exist. They’re putting people all over the field, the offense is working on spacing so we’ve got to be able to communicate. These guys have really bought into that.”

Linebacker Lavonte David remembers those early days of a year ago.

“When you look back and if you could have a camera in our meeting room last year, it was crazy,” David said. “Everybody had the big eyes when we were installing, but now it’s totally different. Everybody’s talking, the whole room is communicating from the D-line to the secondary to the linebackers, and that’s amazing.

“Coach Smith is getting really excited about that. So, that’s really cool to see and also it translating over on the field when we’re doing walkthroughs and things like that. Guys are talking, guys are knowing what each other’s supposed to be doing, so that’s a real cool thing. It kind of picked up towards the end of the season, but we wanted to start fast at the beginning and now we have the opportunity to do so.”

 Do the Bucs have enough pass rush? Can they cover? Can they play the way they did in victories over Kansas City and Seattle?

Time will tell. Remember, it was this time a year ago that defensive end Robert Ayers Jr. pronounced the Bucs as being “terrible.”

“It's still early,” Ayers said Wednesday. “I still don't think we're where we need to be. I'll never think in OTAs that we are good. I'll never think that we've accomplished anything. I'll never feel like we have arrived. I'll never feel that way. I'll always think that we're not a good unit at this point.

“There's nothing that's going to make me think, 'Oh, we're tough, we're ready. We're ready to kick ass this year.' There's nothing that's ever going to happen in OTAs to make me think that. So with me saying we were terrible last year, I still feel the same way now, but I think we're improving, I think we're taking steps, I think we're getting better. I'm encouraged. I'm excited about going forward, because where we're going to be in August, it's going to be night and day to compared to where we are now. So of course we're terrible, because we're going to be so much better when we get the pads on. When we stop taking those steps and we start getting a better feel for each other, we're going to be so much better. So that's what I mean when I say that.

The Bucs are high on their second Evans taken out of Texas A&M. They think Beckwith can play, and for a seventh-round draft pick, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, has gotten a lot of mention. (The Bucs keep double-dipping, taking an athlete in free agency and another at the draft at the same position. They have now done it at linebacker, cornerback, defensive end, wide receiver and safety.

But the Bucs expect to get better, largely, because of last year's draft picks. Former No. 1 Vernon Hargreaves and No. 2 Noah Spence are expected to be better.

“I think I said this at the end of the season, if I didn’t, I should’ve,” Smith said of Spence, a defensive end. “He’s one tough dude. The injury that he played through the whole entire time that he was injured early in the season shows how tough he is. He’s a guy that we’re expecting big things from. Unfortunately, he’s not going to be able to really participate with us until we get to training camp. But he is much more than what we anticipated, being able to be a three-down [player], and he is looking really good watching him work on the side. Very excited about having him join us when we get started in training camp.”

Added Ayers: Being around Noah and talking to him, he's motivated. He has a huge chip on his shoulder. A lot of people might think, 'Why does he have a chip on his shoulder? He played pretty good as a rookie.' But for him, he didn't meet his standards and he didn't do the things that he wanted to be doing. Talking to him, I know how hungry he is, and I see what type of shape he's in

Smith said he expects Hargreaves, a corner, to be more aggressive.

“I think it’s confidence and knowing what the situation is, as I mentioned earlier with our whole defense,” Smith said. “Knowing the situation, knowing that we’re down in the red zone. We’ve got less to defend, we’ve got to take tighter coverage. We don’t always want to be paint by numbers as a football team. Just because the rule says that you line up at eight yards, well, when you’re inside the 15-yard line we don’t want you lining up at eight yards. We want you to line up half the distance. There’s certain things that he’ll get a better understanding of. Athletically, you all saw he can play both inside and outside so he gives us a lot of flexibility.”

The bottom line? Yes, the offense should have some sizzle to it. But offenses tend to stop themselves at times.

No matter how high-scoring this team is, you know there will be times that the defense has to make a play. Someone is going to have sack someone. Someone is going to have to cover. Someone is going to have to tackle.

That way, someone can win.

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