The Bucs had their best regular season in team history in 2021. In Bruce Arians’ final season as head coach, Tampa Bay won a franchise-record 13 games. That 13-4 record was good enough to earn the NFC South title, which hadn’t been won by the Bucs since 2007. Tampa Bay also claimed the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
But all of that wasn’t good enough, as the Bucs lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, 30-27. What made it worse is that it came at home at Raymond James Stadium, and Tampa Bay had clawed its way back from a 27-3 deficit to tie the game at 27-27. Yet, with just 42 seconds left in regulation, Matthew Stafford hit All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp with two big pass plays, including a 44-yarder to put Los Angeles in field goal range for the game-winner.
Bucs DC Todd Bowles and HC Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The fact that the Bucs lost the game with the defense on the field has gnawed at new head coach Todd Bowles and his staff all offseason. Bowles, the team’s defensive coordinator, called an all-out blitz on the Stafford-to-Kupp bomb and it wound up backfiring on Tampa Bay.
Bowles will still be calling plays as head coach. But he promoted inside linebackers coach Larry Foote and defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers to the role of co-defensive coordinators. Foote will coordinate the back end of the defense, while Rodgers will concentrate on the defensive front.
All of the Bucs’ assistant coaches spoke to the media on Tuesday and that game is still fresh in their minds.
“We’re very close,” Foote said. “I know that was a rough game, but we got back in it. We’re very close. I know injuries played a big part in it. Hey, the time is now. The time is now with veterans, especially on the back end. We’re not young anymore. I mean we have a lot of four-year guys, so I’m expecting them guys on defense to make a big step and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Bucs defense weathered the storm of a lot of injuries in the secondary last year. And star linebacker Lavonte David played in the playoffs with a serious foot injury. He should be ready to go by training camp, and everyone else on the defense is back to full health.
Even though the Bucs won 13 games, it wasn’t good enough. The Bucs fell short of beating the Rams, a team that has now beat them three times in a row, and winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
For Foote, the Bucs need to improve their focus on defense in 2022. That starts in the meeting rooms during film study and on the practice fields during the offseason.
“I tell these young guys you have to focus, too,” Foote said. “That’s a muscle that you have to keep getting stronger and stronger. We live in a world with social media, so I have to give them guys breaks, but if you focus longer, you are going to make that play. It’s a game of inches.”
Jets RB Michael Carter and Bucs S Antoine Winfield, Jr. – Photo by: USA Today
Tampa Bay had the league’s No. 1 rushing defense (80.6 avg.) in 2020 while winning the Super Bowl. The Bucs also ranked sixth in yards allowed (327.1 avg.) that year.
Last year, Tampa Bay slipped to the No. 3 rushing defense (92.5 avg.) and had the No. 13-ranked total yardage defense (332.1 avg.). That’s still really good, but the Bucs are aiming to improve across the board on defense this offseason.
“Attention to detail and fundamentals,” Rodgers said. “As we’re going through the cut-ups, it wasn’t us getting beat because we weren’t good enough. We were getting beat because we were making a mental error at the wrong time or we weren’t accountable, or technique or fundamentals. We’ve got talented guys. We just need to be better technically.”
Bowles blitzes more than any other defensive coordinator in the league. Tampa Bay blitzed on a league-high 40.8% of its snaps, and had a pressure rate of 28.6%. But there were too many missed sacks.
The Bucs finished with 47 sacks, which was the same amount they had in Bowles’ first year in Tampa Bay in 2019. The team had 48 sacks in the 2020 regular season and added another 10 in the postseason. But the defense fell short of its goal of 50-plus sacks during the regular season last year.
New outside linebackers coach Bob Sanders put together a reel of missed sacks to show the defense this past week. The message was to hone in on technique and fundamentals once the players hit the field.
“I don’t remember the exact number [of missed sacks] on the tape, but if it was close I went ahead and put it on there because they could see how close we were,” Sanders said. “Some of them, the ball came out, but we were close.
Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
What I always try to tell the guys is that I’m trying to find you that 1/1,000 of a second. That’s what I’m trying to find you. Whether it’s your stance or your start, your footwork or whatever it may be. I’m just trying to find you whatever time frame is [needed] to get you home. Can we come tighter? Is our angle tighter? Can we flip our hips? Can we come lower?”
If the Bucs can improve on sacks and pressure rate, then defensive stats improve and perhaps plays like Stafford’s 44-yard strike to Kupp don’t happen. The key to Tampa Bay’s improvement is already underway in the meeting rooms. Now, the coaches need it to translate to the practice fields and then carry over to game days.
Scott Reynolds is in his 27th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive coordinator/defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.