In many ways, the first two games of Tampa Bay's 2009 regular season are unchartered waters for the Bucs' defense, which has struggled to say the least.
Under the guidance of new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, Tampa Bay's defense has surrendered a total of 900 yards of offense and 60 points in losses to Dallas and Buffalo.
As a result, the Bucs, who watched their defenses rank in the top 10 in 11 of former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 13 seasons in Tampa Bay, currently ranks 31st, which is second-to-last in the NFL.
"It bothers me. It bothers everyone here," said Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. "Nobody wants to have a bad defense, and in the first two games we were bad. It's a pride issue, and we have a lot of high character guys in this locker room that will take it upon themselves to play better."
In their Week 1 loss to Dallas, the Bucs defense allowed quarterback Tony Romo to complete four passes for 40-plus yards, including three for touchdowns.
In Buffalo, Tampa Bay's secondary allowed Bills QB Trent Edwards to connect on touchdown passes to wide receivers Lee Evans and Terrell Owens, but the Bucs had bigger issues than those two TD passes.
Tampa Bay also allowed Buffalo backup running back Fred Jackson to rush for a career-high 163 yards (5.8 avg.), including a 43-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Much of Jackson's production via the ground game came after missed tackles by Tampa Bay's defense. In fact, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris counted two dozen missed tackles by his defense during the team's 33-20 loss to the Bills.
"Yesterday was the worst tackling performance of this whole new regime," said Morris. "We had 24 missed tackles. Before that I don't think we had a double-digit total for missed tackles in a game. Yesterday was not a good tackling day for us or that unit. They know that.
"Missed tackles are definitely the frustration issue. It's more than just being beat physically. A missed tackle is a technique, a want-to, a will, and it's the stuff that has nothing to do with talent. Yesterday we had a bunch of missed tackles. It will be clear to those guys again when they watch the tape."
Morris' players don't need to watch the game film vs. Buffalo to realize how horrific Tampa Bay's tackling, or lack thereof, was vs. Buffalo.
"We've been tackling for a long time now," said Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack. "You started tackling when you were a young kid. It's not something you ever forget, but it's something you can easily not do in the game. We had a lot of aggressiveness in the game. We had a lot of friendly fire in there with guys hitting our own guys. That's a good sign, but we did miss too many tackles."
Some wonder if Tampa Bay's players still are in the process of digesting Bates' 4-3, man-to-man defensive scheme. However, the Bucs players that talked Monday didn't support that notion, and deemed it an excuse.
"When you're a pro you have to be able to do anything," said Ruud. "Whatever they install, you have to be able to run it. Saying we're learning a new system is just a way to try to blame somebody else, I think. When you don't tackle well, it doesn't matter what you're running defensively, you're not going to play well.
"Individual battles have to be won. You could play with my cousin from Norway who can't speak English, and expect him to be in a spot and make a tackle, and he would expect the same from me. It just goes back to winning our individual battles and knowing what we're doing. If we do that everything else will take care of itself."
Despite having the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL, the Bucs are 0-2 on the season and have lost six straight regular season games dating back to 2008. Poor play and tackling were two things Tampa Bay's defense struggled with last season en route to a December collapse. Several current Bucs defenders were part of that collapse, and the revamped defense knows it has to tackle and play much better in order to help the Bucs win their first game under Morris.
"When you don't tackle well you're probably not going to play very well," said Ruud. "That just goes back to basics. Every team is going to have a bad tackling game throughout the course of a year, but you have to be able to bounce back from it and have the mindset to tackle better."
Some worry that Tampa Bay's young and revamped defense has been shaken in its first two games under Morris, but the first-year head coach isn't too concerned about the team's confidence level.
"It's two games. If you expect to come in here and win all of them you're fooling yourself," said Morris. "This is a young football team. The bottom line is we have to get better and better every week. Did we give ourselves a chance to win yesterday? I think they can all see it. You saw [cornerback] Elbert Mack make a play on the deep ball. You saw [safety] Sabby Piscitelli bounce back with a pick and with a fumble recovery. He had a bunch of tackles – he did have one missed tackle. You see these guys bounce back. They don't lack confidence. We drafted them and picked them up for a reason. These guys don't have confidence issues. They just need to go out there, play together, play hard and play fast."
Morris isn't the only one who is not concerned about team confidence being shaken at this point. The players still appear to be a confident group. They'll certainly need it against their next opponent – the 2-0 New York Giants, who will invade Raymond James Stadium with the sixth-ranked offense in the NFL.
"I think our confidence is still good," said Bucs defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson. "I think everybody here knows that if we can fix those little mistakes we've been making the past two weeks then we can be a dominate team, both offense and defense. We just need to be more focused out there. The last two weeks the penalties have really killed us, and yesterday the missed tackles and penalties killed us. If we didn't have that the last two weeks we'd probably be sitting here 2-0."