Just three games into the 2012 season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made an astounding turnaround in the team’s run defense. After surrendering 150 yards per game last year on the ground, which was dead last in the NFL, the Bucs rushing defense is suddenly stout, allowing just 47.3 yards rushing per game.
Under new head coach Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, the Bucs defense has quickly gone from worst to first in the league when it comes to stopping the run.
The Bucs defense has done a fantastic job against the run all year, including on Sunday as the Cowboys rushed for just 38 yards on 23 carries (1.7 avg.). While the defense has had an influx of new personnel, including linebacker Lavonte David, safety Mark Barron and cornerbacks Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald, and moving cornerback Ronde Barber to free safety, the key is penetration from the front seven as Tampa Bay registered a season-high 11 tackles for loss against Dallas.
“I really believe in the scheme we have and if everybody does that and does their job that we have the personnel to make TFLs – tackles for loss – happen,” said Bucs nose tackle Roy Miller, who got his first tackle for loss of the year in Dallas. “With the scheme and the type of players we have – we have guys that are very athletic and when they move they make people miss – I think the two work real well together.”
The scheme deployed by Schiano and Sheridan calls for Tampa Bay’s defensive front to attack its gaps, penetrate and make plays behind the scrimmage with a higher degree of emphasis than Raheem Morris’ scheme, which was more read and react.
Through three games in 2012, the Buccaneers have an amazing 24 tackles for loss. Last year, the team posted only 66 through 16 games. If the defense continues stuffing running backs behind the line of scrimmage at this pace Tampa Bay will finish the year with 128 tackles for loss, which would be a franchise record.
“That’s the key. The whole key is the tackles for loss,” said Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett, who has three tackles for loss. “Our tackles for loss are up higher than every other year. We’re off to a great start and we just want to keep growing and play some of the best teams to see where we really are.
“We are dead set on stopping any kind of run against us. That gives you an identity on defense.”
Middle linebacker Mason Foster led the team in tackles last year with 126, but only had four tackles for loss during the entire season. This year, Foster leads the team with 26 stops, but already has a team-leading seven tackles for loss, which is a career high through three games.
Aside from being helpless in stopping the run, the Bucs defense was also criticized for not getting to the quarterback enough last year, and not generating enough interceptions. In 2011, Tampa Bay had only 23 sacks and just 14 interceptions. In three games this season, the Bucs already have seven sacks and six interceptions because teams are being forced to pass the ball because Tampa Bay’s defense is taking away the run, especially on the early downs.
“Obviously that’s a big deal when you can have a negative play on first down or a negative play on second down where you’ve got those guys in third-and-long as opposed to third-and-manageable,” said Bucs strongside linebacker Quincy Black. “Those are big downs where you can pin your ears back and let those guys kind of eat a little bit.”
The Bucs are tied for second in the NFL with the New York Giants and Chicago with six picks, just one behind league-leading Atlanta. Tampa Bay is also tied for ninth in the league with seven sacks. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Bennett are tied for eighth in the NFL with three sacks apiece. Bennett’s two forced fumbles, which have come during sacks, are tied for first in the league through three games.
“We have a better run defense this year,” Bennett said. “Last year we didn’t have a good run defense so we didn’t have a lot of pass rush opportunities. This year we have more opportunities and we are capitalizing him. We’re hungry and we feel pretty good.”
With three sacks, Bennett is just one more quarterback capture away from tying his career high of four, which was set in 2011. McCoy has already tied his career high of three sacks, which he set during his rookie season in 2010.
“The defensive line is playing awesome, lights out ball right now,” Black said. “I don’t think they believe that they are a finished product, which is scary. The sky is the limit for them. They are really producing and a lot of that starts up front.”
Part of the reason why Tampa Bay’s run defense suffered in 2011 was because it lost McCoy, the team’s most talented defensive lineman, to a season-ending biceps injury in the sixth game of the year. Now that he is back and playing better than ever, it is no surprise that McCoy is second on the team with four tackles for loss.
“Our initial philosophy as a defense is to stop the run,” McCoy said. “That’s the first thing on the board when we walk – our philosophy is to stop the run. With all of these dynamic pass rushers we have you can’t rush the passer if you don’t stop the run. That’s limited people’s game plans now with us coming in each week and playing well against the run. It’s making people have to throw the ball. Now we have to come together as a defense and make sure we can defend everything. Initially stopping the run should be any defense’s first goal.”
However, the Bucs total defense ranks 26th in the league, allowing 400.7 yards per game. Yet that’s due to a somewhat shaky pass defense that is currently last in the NFL, surrendering 353.3 yards per game. But as Tampa Bay’s pass rush heats up and Sheridan and Schiano continue to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the team’s defensive players, expect the passing yardage allowed to go down.
“The more we keep buying in as Coach Schiano says and going all in and keep believing that the scheme works and executing the scheme it will open up the door for everybody to make more plays,” Miller said. “That’s our number one goal – stopping the run. If you can’t stop the run it makes the game a lot harder. If they want to run they can make the play-action passing game work, too. It’s huge that guys have stepped up to take that away this year.”
After getting steamrolled by teams last year on a weekly basis, Miller said the defense is thrilled with the progress it’s made in going from worst to first while defending the run.
“It feels good – it feels like it should be,” Miller said. “You go out there with goals as a defense to stop the run and to go out there and do it – it feels real good.”
Copyright © 2011 Pewter Report, PewterReport.com and Pewter Insider. All rights reserved. PewterReport.com, the official site of Pewter Report, is an independent source of news and commentary and is not affiliated with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the NFL.