Whether it’s been a defensive lineman failing to stuff gaps or a linebacker or defensive back unsuccessfully bringing down ball carriers in the second and third levels, an all-around poor tackling effort continued to be cited on this week as what critically ails this Tampa Bay defense.
Defensive end Michael Bennett has been vocal about the issue since sitting at his Raymond James Stadium locker following the 37-9 whipping Tampa Bay endured at the hands of Houston on Sunday.
“I think it’s just tackling, honestly,” Bennett reiterated Wednesday afternoon before the Bucs suited up for a padded practice. “Poor tackling. People are in their gaps, they’re just not tackling. We need to work on that; getting more disciplined and tackling.”
Witnessing and then determining that makeable tackles were missed on certain plays throughout a game is the easy part, though. Figuring out a quick solution to a problem that’s primarily fundamental in nature may not be so black-and-white. To Bennett and other Bucs defenders, changing that negative recurrence starts from within.
“People have been tackling for 20 years,” Bennett said, referring to playing the game since youth. “Tackling’s a want-to. It’s not whether we have pads on [during practice], it’s whether we’re running in there and aren’t afraid to knock somebody out.”
When asked if the Bucs simply haven’t been playing with that desire on Sundays, Bennett just restated his belief that it’s what’s needed now.
“I’m not going to say that. Whatever you interpret what I’m saying is what you want to interpret, but I’m just saying that tackling is a want-to; defense is a want-to. Anytime a defense can control a game – you see these great defenses like the Ravens – they always control the game because of their tempo and aggressiveness. That’s what we need to get.”
Rookie defensive end Da’Quan Bowers cited another intangible – accountability – that the Tampa Bay defense must display amongst itself if it wants to take a turn in the right direction.
“We tackled very poorly against the Texans and it showed,” said rookie defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. “We had a lot of missed tackles and a lot of missed opportunities.
“Hopefully this week in practice we can get it taken care of. I don’t know what the plan is to fix it but everybody’s just got to keep each other accountable in all situations. Our defensive line is going to hold each other accountable. Ronde and Aqib are going to keep those DBs accountable. The linebackers are going to hold each other accountable. Everybody’s dependent on each other to help each other out.”
Aside from exerting a more concerted effort on Sunday’s and showing Bennett’s “want-to” attitude, opportunities to make improvements during the week are running low for the Bucs. Part of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement enacted this summer is a limitation to 14 total padded practices during the season. Of those 14, 11 must be spent by the end of this week.
Along with Wednesday’s practice, the Bucs are suited up in full twice this week. If that’s part of what Tampa Bay needs, Bennett said he doesn’t know, but that he’s willing to do whatever it is the coaching staff decides is best.
“We can just get more banging, I guess. Whatever Coach [Morris] asks us to do we just have to follow it. That’s another thing we need to do is just follow the game plan; continue with it and keep going. We’ve just got to get that mindset, that vicious mindset. That’s what we need to get and coach feels like this practice will help us get that. If he thinks that, I’m not one to argue with him. I’m just going to do what he asks me to do.”
As Houston gashed Tampa Bay for 420 total net yards and the Bucs sank to 29th in the league against the run (138.2 per game) and 28th against the pass (263.0), perhaps the most quickly remembered of the glaring missed stops – both long touchdown receptions – came from members of the secondary in the open field.
Cornerback E.J. Biggers fell in line with Bennett and Bowers with his own assessment, now three days removed.
“Sometimes you just have to get back to the basics,” the third-year defensive back said. “We’ve got to get back to Buc football. That’s the basics. We’re going to go out today, tomorrow and the rest of this week and we’re going to get better. Individually get better and as a team get better.”
Getting better would be optimal with the undefeated defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and MVP-candidate quarterback Aaron Rodgers up next for Tampa Bay. The Packers are the highest scoring team in the league through 10 weeks (35.6 points) and average 407.9 yards per game.
While Rodgers and his bevy of receiving weapons attract the most attention, the Bucs’ ability to corral running backs James Starks (55.9 rushing yards per game) and Ryan Grant (31.4) remains a critical focus, Bowers said.
“We’ve got to stop the run before we do anything. If we don’t stop they run they’ll gash us for 150-200 yards like teams have been getting all year. It’s hard to win football games like that so we’ve just got to take it one step at a time and focus on stopping the run.
“We haven’t done that all year long and as a defensive line we partly take blame for that,” Bowers continued. “We just want to stop the run and make it a one-way game and try to get them out of their comfort zone; try to rattle Aaron Rodgers a little bit because he’s the key to all their success.”