The Buccaneers' defense has struggled in its first two games of the 2009 regular season, and things aren't going to get any easier for Tampa Bay.
The New York Giants are Tampa Bay's next opponent, and are 2-0 on the season and invade Raymond James Stadium with the sixth-ranked offense in the NFL on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's defense currently ranks 31st in the NFL. In its 33-20 loss to Buffalo, the Buccaneers had a sloppy performance that featured 24 missed tackles.
Needless to say, the 0-2 Bucs plan to emphasize the importance of tackling in their preparation for the Giants because they know it will be difficult to register a win this week without cleaning up that particular part of their game.
"Like Rah said, you can't win a game when you miss tackles, and everybody individually contributed to the missed tackles," said Bucs safety Sabby Piscitelli. "We have to play aggressive football like the Bucs have been known for doing, which means swarming to the ball and capping off."
Missed tackles are something the Bucs have struggled with dating back to last season when Tampa Bay's defense, led at that time by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, suffered a late-season collapse. The missed tackles in last Sunday's game in Buffalo allowed Bills backup RB Fred Jackson to rush for a career-high 163 yards (5.8 avg.).
“You have to give Jackson credit for the way he ran the ball. He’s a complete back,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates. “He runs with good pad level and he brought it to us. I’ve seen too good of tackling from our players in the previous game and the preseason games that it shouldn’t be a big factor. It has got to be better. We can’t win games with that type of tackling. It will be better.”
Like Bates, the Bucs players still are confident that the tackling can be cleaned up.
"Tackling is technique, but sometimes you can also be overaggressive and that can throw you off," said Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes. "That hurt us a little bit last week.
"It's just one of those things where we didn't tackle well. We're going to fix it. We're not going to sit here and hang out heads about it. It's correctable, and we're going to do something about it."
The good news for the Bucs is the Giants have the 22nd-ranked ground attack in the NFL. The bad news is Tampa Bay's defense is charged with the difficult task of containing New York RB Brandon Jacobs and his 6-fot-4, 264-pound frame.
"He is the biggest back we're going to face all year," said Bucs defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson. "The guy is 270 pounds and can flat out run. He brings a lot of power to the running game and he can move. His main deal is running downhill, so we just need to keep him in front of us and not let him get to the second level."
Jacobs is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and has yet to score a touchdown this season. However, Tampa Bay points to Jacobs' overall production throughout his career, which includes two straight 1,000-yard seasons and 19 touchdowns from 2007-08.
"He might not have the stats right now, but it's only been two games," said Hayes. "You still have to respect him because you know he's more than capable of breaking off those big runs for big chunks of yards on any carry."
The Bucs must also account for Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who is the team's change-of-pace back and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry behind a physical and talented offensive line this season.
Containing both of New York's running backs is the No. 1 priority for Tampa Bay's defense heading in to Sunday's contest.
"We have to do two things [against the Giants' running backs]," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "First, we need to go out and practice today and work our technique and our fundamentals. It goes from tackling to pad level to assignment to alignment to get off. That's what we need to work on today.
"Second, this has always been a team that has hustled and pursued to the ball. We've always been a cap-off team. You know what? I'm as much to blame as anybody. There were two occasions where I loafed on that field on Sunday – and that won't happen again. At the same time, that first guy might miss the tackle, but there should be 10 other guys going and screaming to cap the guy off. That's what we need to get to, especially this weekend with two big backs. I'm talking about [Ahmad Bradshaw], too. That guy's a beast, too. Those two big backs are coming in and one guy is not going to bring them down. We played them already in 2007. We know the feel and we know the tempo. We know what it's going to take to bring these guys down. Our guys have a mindset this week to execute our game plan."
The last time the Bucs faced the Giants was when New York downed Tampa Bay in an NFC Wild Card Playoff Game in 2007, 24-14. Jacobs and Bradshaw rushed 30 times for 100 yards in that contest.
What is the key to limiting their production on Sunday?
"We have to gang tackle [Jacobs]," said Piscitelli. "All 11 guys have to get to the ball. Jacobs is a big dude. The biggest thing is we have to get to him early. We can't give him a six- or seven-yard head start. We've got to make him run laterally. He's a big dude, but we also have a defense that likes to hit, so it's going to be a good game."
With New York's ground attack struggling, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has elevated his game. The former first-round pick has a 56-percent career passing percentage, but Manning has completed 67.2 percent of his passes and tossed three touchdowns and just one interception through the first two games of the season.
"Eli is a great quarterback. I have a lot of respect for him," said Piscitelli. "But like I said, it's about us and what we do defensively. If we go out there and execute our assignments and make the plays we're supposed to make we'll win games."
In order to limit Manning's production and come up with some much-needed turnovers, which will be difficult, evidenced by New York's plus-4 turnover ratio, the Bucs' front four must sustain a better pass rush.
Tampa Bay's defense was expected to thrive in the sack department with the addition of Bates this offseason, but the team's D-line has just two sacks thus far and has given up several big plays in the passing game.
"We just have to keep doing what we're doing," said Wilkerson. "I think we're getting really good pressure out there. We're always our worst critics in terms of getting pressure because we want a lot of sacks. We just need to keep doing what we're doing consistently to help our DBs and linebackers out."
Morris was critical of Tampa Bay’s pass rush, or lack thereof, on Monday, and said Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, needed to step up along with the rest of the front four.
“I think he’s frustrated,” said Bates. “The expectations are so high and I think he puts more pressure on himself, and he gets frustrated. Gaines has set high goals and he wants to attain them, and when that’s not happening it’s frustrating. It’s been two games and he hasn’t made a sack. He played better [against Dallas] and has actually played the run fairly well. He didn’t have a good rush scheme in Buffalo, and he knows that. He just needs to calm down and play his game, let things happen and take advantage of the skills he has because he has a lot of them. Sacks oftentimes come in bunches and don’t just happen every week. Once you get in that groove they will come, but you have play to make them happen. That’s what Gaines has to do – he has to raise his game, play to his ability level, improve every week and get the job done.”
Morris said Wednesday that he and the players still believe that Bates' system, which was successful in Miami and Green Bay, can work in Tampa Bay, which has a young core of talent.
“It would be if you were a mentally weak team,” Morris said when asked if players would start to naturally question the defense at this point. “This is not a mentally weak team, neighborhood, staff or locker room. I’m sure you guys remember that in 1996 Tony Dungy walked in here and had a defense with Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. They said Lynch couldn’t play safety and should be moved to linebacker. They said Brooks was too small to play linebacker, and they said Sapp was too fat and had too many off-the-field issues. Thirteen years later we can’t believe we got rid of them and that they’re no longer with the Bucs. The same thing is happening now. I’m not saying these guys are Brooks, Sapp and Lynch, but we have some young, talented players.”
Things haven't necessarily gone as planned for Bates and his defense, but he stressed patience while acknowledging the importance of cleaning some things up on that side of the ball, and in a hurry.
“When we got to Miami we got off to a fast start, and the same thing happened in Green Bay,” Bates recalled of his defensive coordinator stints with the Dolphins and Packers. “Denver wasn’t a fast start. This here has been interesting in terms of being off to a slow start. We didn’t anticipate allowing five touchdown passes for 30-plus yards. We didn’t anticipate missing tackles like we did the last game. But we have good character, the players work hard and have good passion for the game. [Linebacker] Geno Hayes was a bright spot last week, and he is coming through and playing better. We just need to get all of the younger players – and the veterans – to play at a high level so we can start winning some football games and making some things happen on defense.”
Stopping Jacobs and Bradshaw on the ground, and limiting Manning's production in the passing game won't be easy for the Bucs defense. While it's fallen under heavy criticism over the past two weeks, the Bucs defense believes it isn't far away from helping the team record its first win of the 2009 regular season.
"We watch the film, and we're right there," said Piscitelli. "If we just clean up a few plays and a couple of areas we'll be clicking on all cylinders. Of offense is doing a good job, and we have a few things to work on on defense. We just have to keep growing and improving, and we'll be fine."