The extra time between the Thursday night loss to the Falcons and the following Sunday win against the Bears served as a period of reflection for Bucs coaches. That was especially the case for the defensive staff, whose unit surrendered over 1,000 yards combined in back-to-back losses before a strong rebound in Week 10.
“Well I think it’s important when you get an opportunity to take a deep breath and evaluate, to get a chance to see what we’ve done well as a coaching staff,” defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Thursday. “What we’ve done poorly as a coaching staff and what our players have done well and poorly. We’re trying to play to their strengths.
“But we spent a lot of time evaluating across the board. When you had the nine days that we had, you had to do some soul searching. There’s no doubt about that.”
Returning injured players to the field also helped their case, Smith added. Defensive end Robert Ayers’ impact was particularly noticeable last Sunday, as was Clinton McDonald’s. And a stronger pass rush makes for an easier time in coverage.
As for the secondary’s success, Smith said the defensive backs’ had a better idea of the scheme and their assignment. As such, cornerbacks were “matching receivers,” playing tighter and forcing the quarterback to hesitate.
The defensive improvement was a combination of a steady rush and aggressive coverage that the Bucs had lacked in previous weeks.
“It was very complimentary,” Smith said of the defense. “When you match the receivers closer, it gives the quarterback a little angst, he holds on to the ball, starts to get on the run and then it allows us to get pressure.”
Smith said there’s still a long way to go, with certain areas in glaring need of improvement. While the defense seemed to take a step forward against the pass last Sunday, the same couldn’t be said for the run. The Bears’ backs totaled 116 yards on 17 carries, often finding lanes right up the middle.
That’s a result of linemen being out of their gaps, and forcing linebackers or even safeties to recover. Not an ideal formula. It’s part of the reason Tampa Bay signed interior lineman Sealver Siliga, a 325-pound tackle that adds size along the front four.
“Everybody is responsible for a gap,” Smith said, adding that inside runs have been a “concern for the last four weeks.”
“When you miss fit a run play and the ball carrier runs into that missed fit gap, there’s going to be some yardage. And we missed fit a handful of runs, and they turned into 7-yard runs or a 12-yard run.”
The Bucs have young players in a relatively new scheme. Reflection and strategy aside, Smith said improving on defense is still a process – but an exciting one at that.
“It can be frustrating at times, but also very rewarding to see the guys go out and have some success,” Smith said. “We can’t say that because we had success last week, that we’re going to have success this week. We’ve got to go in and be a better football player tomorrow than we were today. That’s been our goal.
“We haven’t talked about what we’re going to do. We just want to be better than we were yesterday and continue to go through this process.”