Bucs need their defense to be strong

by Gary Shelton on August 2, 2018 · 4 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Mike Smith needs his defense to be better in 2018./CARMEN MANDATO

Mike Smith needs his defense to be better in 2018./CARMEN MANDATO

Thursday, 3 a.m.

This time, can the defense of the Tampa Bay Bucs save the day?

Wait. Don't laugh. It's a serious question.

Granted, a year ago, you wouldn't have expected the Bucs to do any saving at all. Tampa Bay had the worst defense in the league, as well as the worst pass rush. They were last in the NFL in passing defense and 23rd in rushing defense. They were a turnstile, a team playing dodgeball.

But this year? If the Bucs chased the right players in the off-season, his year has a chance to be different.

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There is a new secondary. There is a rebuilt defensive line. There is more depth. There is more skill.

But, against a stacked schedule, is it enough?

This year, the Bucs' defense will have to hold down the fort while the starting quarterback is suspended. It has to be solid while rookie running back Ronald Jones works his way into the lineup. It has to be reborn against  a litany of very good quarterbacks and star receivers.

Just that.

"We definitely have different players out there on our defense right now," said defensive coordinator Mike Smith. "The moves that we made in free agency, trades, and the draft have brought a lot of new guys in our room. I’ve been impressed with the work ethic and I think it breeds a lot of competition and when you have that competition I think it brings out the best in all of you.

"We have more depth. Again when you had three in free agency, trade for one, and your first round pick is a defensive lineman, you have definitely upgraded in that area. So we like where we are at. We know that there are guys that are going to get hurt and when one gets hurt another one is going to have to step up. The most important thing for us right now is to get a good feel of who we are going to put out there on the field in certain situations because we do have a lot of options.”

Ah, but in the NFC South, the Bucs will face quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.  They'll also face Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garappolo. They'll face Julio Jones and Antonio Bryant and Odell Beckham.

That calls into question a secondary that will include three rookies, including second-round picks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis. Safety Jordan Whitehead could play some snaps, too.

“I’ve been very impressed with all three of them," Smith said. "Carlton (Davis) has had an opportunity to work with the first group in the first couple of days at times. He’s got great length. He’s a very competitive guy. I’ve been impressed with him. I think M.J. Stewart, the play that he made today, talks volumes about him. I think he has flexibility, in terms of playing inside and outside. We’ve put a lot on his plate. He’s handled it well. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles it in the preseason games when the coach isn’t out there hollering at him. And then  Whitehead is a guy who has missed most of our offseason work but he has gotten in there and had some opportunities as well. So again, those new guys are giving us a completely different look.”

Hopefully, that look will involve covering receivers. That wasn't seen often enough last year.

Whoever plays in the secondary will hope the new defensive line limits how much time the quarterbacks have. Between Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, the team should provide more pressure than last year's unit, which was last in the league in sacks.

“It is and it’s us learning about what they can do," Smith said. "And it’s very important that through the preseason we find out what these guys can handle in terms of what we can put into the playbook, and then also what we think they are going to be able to play in terms of numbers of snaps. We’re going to have a rotation. There are too many good guys up front that deserve an opportunity to play and they’re going to be able to help us.”

“I don’t think it will take three or four games. I think we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate these guys in the preseason. Each and every week is a completely different dynamic about who you’re lining up against, what they’re going to run, how we’re going to try to defend it. It’s going to be something that I think it is going to be fluid throughout the season. The great thing that these guys know is that it’s an open competition. There’s nobody that’s guaranteed a starting role on this defense.”

Linebackers Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendell Beckwith should be better this year. They're surrounded by more talent.

“That’s going to be interesting," Smith said. "Our draft pick (Jack) Cichy has done a very nice job. I was very pleased to see that he didn’t wear a knee brace, his first day. So that’s a positive step to go through mentally, that you’re going to be able to go out there and play without a brace. I’m interested to have a discussion to see how it went for him. He’s done a nice job. I think (Devante) Bond has done some nice things thus far and again, it’s really early, but that group, we didn’t really add anybody except Jack. That group is pretty much the same group we had last year. And we hope that this year, knock on wood, that they stay a lot healthier.”

Again, there is improvement, and there is improvement to the point of being contenders. Remember, the Bucs' best years were forged by the defense.

“For the most part, these guys have done a good job," Smith said. "I think what we have to do is be a little bit more resilient and be able to finish practices, finish games and I think that’s one of the things that I believe that our guys understand. That’s going to be important because more games in this league come down to one score than people realize.”







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