A day after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put an end to their depressing 2014 campaign, it wasn’t all frowns and reflections of misery at One Buc Place on Monday.
The two total wins may be the fewest earned in any season since the 1986 Bucs finished with an equal 2-14 record, but many members of this year’s defense were downright optimistic as they packed their lockers for a final time this year.
“Even though the season ended the way it did, there were a lot of times you could see that we could be that team that could go worst to first,” weakside linebacker Lavonte David said, looking forward to next year. “From the defensive side of the ball there was a lot of improvement that you can look at. This season just didn’t turn out the way that we wanted it to be, but there’s a lot of excitement still because we know we have a lot of great athletes in this locker room and next year we’re going to be shooting to be in first.”
David’s career-best 146 total tackles ranked third in the NFL behind Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Detroit’s DeAndre Levy, and the Pro Bowl alternate wasn’t the only one talking about big things to come defensively Monday.
“I know at the beginning of the season I talked about it a lot, saying we’re going to be top five,” said cornerback Alterraun Verner, who finished up his first year in Tampa Bay. “I still felt like we had that talent to do that and I wouldn’t take that statement back. I think we will be and I think people saw that elite status toward the end of the year, and the scary thing is we’re just going to get better from that. We’re not going to be mediocre, we’re not going to stay down, we’re not going to get worse. I think we’re going to get better than what we even showed at the end of the season. So it’s exciting and I think we will be talked about as one of those top defenses where offenses really have to come and bring their A game to compete with us.”
Thanks to a couple blowout losses to Atlanta and Baltimore, the Bucs newly installed defense of head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier dug itself a deep, statistical hole early in the year. After the team’s eighth game – a 22-17 loss in Cleveland – Tampa Bay ranked 31st in total defense (399.9 yards per game), 31st in passing defense (285.3), 18th in rushing defense (114.6) and 32nd in points allowed (30.6).
Even while having to absorb the losses of key starters throughout the season’s second half, the overall unit improved noticeably in spite of a Bucs offense that was often coming back off the field not long after it ran onto it. Only two teams in the NFL (Jacksonville and Philadelphia) had their defenses on the field longer than Tampa Bay this season. The Bucs were playing defense for an average of 32:45 this year and 34:28 over the last three games.
“After the bye week things started to change,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, one of those key starters the Bucs had to play without at times this year. “Things started to come around a little bit. We started to see flashes here and there, and then there were times when our defense was really on top of it.”
During his final press conference with the media Monday, Smith got on board with what his players were preaching while adding that there’s work left to do.
“I think we were closer to how we’re going to eventually play defensive football around here, but no, we’re not there yet,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t be 2-14 if we were there, but it was good for the players to see. Just defining roles – it takes a while for guys to see exactly how important [they] are to our team.
“There are signs going forward of a lot of positive things happening and eventually we’re going to be one of the best defenses around.”
Players and coaches acknowledged that the parts making up next year’s defense won’t be identical. For those players exploring their options this offseason, Verner said that selling this defensive product in Tampa Bay won’t be difficult.
“I’m going to say that we built something already this past season, that this is a place you want to be and that Coach Lovie is doing something right with us here as an organization,” Verner said. “If they look at the film they’ll know what type of effort we’ve been giving. Most of the teams that we played at the end of the game, they saw that we were doing something. Plenty of guys said, ‘We didn’t see the record when we played against ya’ll. We saw ya’ll as a tough opponent.’ So that’s why I’ll say that there’s something special that’s going to happen here and if they want to be a part of that specialness then they should come here.
“To me it’s always fun when you’re in that process of building something instead of just already being somewhere that’s a finished product because it’s going to be more satisfying when you do make it to the top.”