Can this defense win a Super Bowl for Bucs?

by Gary Shelton on February 3, 2021

in general

Davis will need more help against Hill./CARMEN MANDATO

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Deep down in your soul, where the things that go bump in the night live, it remains your greatest fear.

It is the spider under the bed. It is the monster in the closet. It is what goes bump in the night.

If you are a fan of the Tampa Bay Bucs, this creeps in and causes worry lines. This is your greatest fear about Sunday's Super Bowl game against the Chiefs. this is where things can all go wrong.

Is this defense good enough to win?

Oh, you know all about Tom Brady and his receivers, and the offensive line has stood up lately, and even the running backs are better than you had expected.

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But when it gets down to it, is this defense good enough to stop these soaring Chiefs? Can it control Patrick Mahomes? Can it keep Tyreek Hill from blowing up? Can it even find Travis Kelce? Can it make the key stop at the key moment? Can it pressure and cover and tackle and do all the things that the Bucs used to do?

We'll see.

The doubts remain. Despite their seven-game winning streak, despite five sacks against the Packers and four turnovers against Saints, you have seen enough gaps in the Bucs' defense to cause concern. There are too many plays when the Bucs seem to be just holding on. You remember Taylor Heinicke befuddling the pass rush, and you remember rookie Justin Herbert shredding the secondary, and you remember Hill streaking down down the field as alone as cross-country runner.

"They play fast, but they understand football," said Bucs' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. "They’re not just a track team out there. They can beat you vertically or horizontally and then they can run the ball. I think they have a great scheme. They do what they do very well and they do it better than anyone else."

In the NFL, most of the rule-changes have favored the offense, meaning that that off-balance feeling the fans feel is shared throughout the league. Still ...

The Bucs have played 19 games this year, and opponents have scored 25 or more points in eight of them. Opposing quarterbacks have had a 95 rating or better 10 times. In total yardage, the Bucs were 21st in the league against the pass.

Yes, the Bucs have had some good moments on defense, especially lately, but you fear the playmaking ability of the secondary. You worry about the time the quarterback has. Especially, you worry about Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Hill.

Time was, you wouldn't have worried as much. The old Bucs used to face great offenses all the time -- the Rams and Vikings and Raiders -- and then would make them seem ordinary. That was a team built on defense -- it drug the offense around on most Sundays.

This team, however, is built with points in mind. Like most defenses these days, the Bucs rely on turnovers, sacks and penalties to stop drives.

Here's a stat for you. In 2002, the season the Bucs won their only Super Bowl, opposing quarterbacks combined for a 48.4 rating. This year, it's 94.1. Now consider that Mahomes had a rating of 108.2.

At their best, the Bucs are a defense that is good against the run (especially with Vita Vea). Defensive ends Shaq Barrett and Jason-Pierre Paul are skilled pass rushers. Their inside linebackers are as good as a duo as in the league with Devin White and Lavonte David. But the secondary too often seems as if it is there to tackle the man who has just caught the ball.

"It could come down to us," Barrett said. "We can control the game. If we affect the quarterback it can be all on us. He was determined to get it by any means, like don't let failure be an option, and that's what I'm on right now. We came too close to start all over next year without a ring."

Ah, but the secondary. Can it hold up?

Go back to the first game between the teams. Hill scorched cornerback Carlton Davis for 12 catches and 236 yards, including 202 in the first quarter. It wasn't a smart plan, and it didn't work. The Bucs were behind 17-0 in the time it takes to throw a light switch.

"I'm going to bring the same mentality. I'm always going to be myself," Davis said Tuesday. "It didn't work out the first game as far as what we did and our game plan, but we've corrected it and we've got a great game plan going in. But I'm going in with the same mentality and that's to dominate."

Hollow talk? Maybe, but that's Todd Bowles' influence, which is in turn why Bruce Arians hired him.

“I think you’re looking for someone who matches your personality and what you want out of your football team," Arians said. "For us, it starts with attack. We want to attack in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams. Todd does a great job of that [and] I do trust him totally. The only time – and I have to do it very, very seldom – is tell him to go Cover Zero and blitz more. That’s about it.”

For the Bucs' defense, the first rule will be to stop Mahomes. AS great as Hill and Kelce are, he's the orchestrator.

“It’s just going to take discipline," said Bucs' linebacker David. "Everybody just latching onto a man whenever we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage just matching onto a guy, being able to take away his zones and his reads. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to get to him as quick as you can, as fast as you can, any way you can because he makes magic outside the pocket. That’s definitely something that we have to look out for.”

Again, no one is saying this is an awful defense. It was good enough to get here.

But will it be good enough on Sunday?

"If you go watch the playoffs or you go watch a lot of games, you tell me what the defense was doing," linebacker Devin White said. "You tell me if the defense is one of the main reasons why we're playing in Super Bowl 55." 

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