Even though defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin no longer is in Tampa Bay, his successful 13-year tenure with the Bucs has created high expectations for new defensive coordinator Jim Bates and his players.
Bates spent the entire offseason, training camp and preseason implementing his own 4-3 defensive scheme, but the hard work he and his players put in didn't necessarily show up on Sunday's stat sheet.
Tampa Bay's defense allowed Dallas to produce 462 yards of total offense en route to a 34-21 loss to the Cowboys.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completed 16-of-27 passes for 353 yards and tossed three touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite that success, Bates came away somewhat encouraged with the defense's debut.
"There were some good things – take the effort, take the tackling," Bates said. "Other than four plays, it was a great effort. The thing is when you give up plays like that, which you can't do, we have an excellent opportunity of winning this football game."
The four plays Bates is referring to came in the passing game, where Romo completed four passes that gained 40-plus yards, including three that generated touchdowns.
"It was four plays that went bad," said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "One was a bad technique, one was another bad decision by [safety] Sabby [Piscitelli], another was a bad technique by [cornerback Elbert] Mack, one was a miscommunication deal between Sabby and [cornerback] Ronde [Barber]. One was just a dynamic play by a receiver. We can do things to help them, and we will."
Tampa Bay's defense, which currently ranks 29th overall in the NFL, expects its next opponent – the Buffalo Bills – to attempt to create similar plays in the passing game, and Bates stopped short of blaming Piscitelli, who was seen trailing on a number of those plays.
"They are going to challenge us now," Bates said. "It's set out there. People are going to see it on tape and they're going to challenge us. It's just us being focused and playing within the scheme of things. I'm not going to get into the technique involved. We just got beat. Our team got beat. I didn't have us drilled as far as the fundamentals that would let that happen. We all take blame for it. It's not just one guy. It's got to get cleaned up and that's our job as coaches.
"It's happened to every DB. It happened more than it needed to happen. You're going to have that occasionally in games. That's part of the game – giving up big plays. But you can't have it on a consistent basis. They know that. They know they have a target on their chest. We'll rise up. Our players will rise up."
The players are anxious to play another game to prove their belief that the four big plays given up to Dallas were the exception, not the norm.
"We just want to go out there and show the world what we're capable of," said Bucs S Jermaine Phillips. "We know last week was just one game. We want to go out there and get a win under our belt."
In order to rebound from last Sunday's outing, Tampa Bay's defense, particularly its secondary, will have to find a way to limit the production of wide receivers Lee Evans and Terrell Owens, who are considered one of the best receiver duos in the league, but were held to just five catches vs. New England on Monday night.
"T.O. is a really good football player," Morris said. "T.O. is special, but they have Lee Evans, too. Don't forget about him. They've got him on the opposite side of the ball. He's fast, he's dynamic, he can run and he's young and hungry in this new offense. He's got a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, so they are fired up. They have Roscoe Parrish, their return man. He's fast, quick and dynamic. [Cornerback Aqib] Talib is only one guy. He can only cover one of them.
"Ronde and Talib came out and played really well [against Dallas]."
Bills quarterbacks Trent Edwards is expected to test Tampa Bay's secondary Sunday, which is potentially explosive with Evans and Owens in the mix. That's a scenario the Bucs defensive backs look forward to.
"I hope so," Piscitelli said when asked if the Bucs secondary would be targeted by the Bills. "As a [defensive back] you have to have a short memory, but at the same time you open up more opportunities for yourself to make more plays."
If Piscitelli sounds motivated to rebound, he is. Morris made a point to drive home a message to his defensive backs before they took the field Wednesday in preparation for Buffalo.
"Every time you make a mistake in the secondary you create an opportunity for yourself," said Morris. "If I'm Sabby I'm fired up. If I'm Elbert Mack I'm fired up. It's a personal issue with me. You have to stand up or step out. Here we go."
While Tampa Bay's secondary has been criticized for allowing big passing plays vs. Dallas, part of the blame lies up front. The Bucs defensive line failed to generate a good enough pass rush on Romo to disrupt Dallas' passing attack. In fact, the only player to record a sack vs. the Cowboys was Barber, who came in free on a blitz in the first quarter.
The Bills allowed 38 sacks last year, and four quarterback takedowns vs. New England on Monday night. Getting after the Edwards will be critical for the Bucs on Sunday, and in Bates' system defensive ends Gaines Adams, a former top five draft pick, and Jimmy Wilkerson must lead the charge.
"We just don't have the pass rush yet," said Morris. "We need the guy to have the two-sack game, whether it's Gaines [Adams] or Jimmy [Wilkerson]. I can't ask [defensive tackles] Ryan Sims, Chris Hovan or Roy Miller to do that. The inside pass rush right now is either going to be Stylez White or Jimmy when he moves inside. We just need one of those outside guys to step up as far as the pass rush is concerned. It's not to say the other guys can't do that, but that's where it needs to come from first."
Bates, whose man-to-man scheme is best known for generating sacks, put Tampa Bay's lack of pass rush in perspective.
"You've got to look at the tape," Bates said. "Sometimes it wasn't consistent, but a couple times [defensive end] Gaines [Adams] had a tremendous rush. He made a couple moves on the edge against
Flozell Adams and was right there at the quarterback's mouth. … It's not as good as we would like to have it, and it's not as good as the players would like to have it. But it wasn't as bad … and it was a weird game. When you give up those big plays and you don't have the third down situations where you can really get your pass rush in rhythm and get them going. They were 3-of-10 on third down. That's a positive. Anytime you can hold them to 30 percent. That's winning football. We'll take that every time. But we didn't get them in the third-and-8's and third-and-9's and really get those sticks in our favor."
The Bucs appear to have a favorable matchup in the trenches, where Tampa Bay's experienced front four will face a Buffalo offensive line that is quite inexperienced, evidenced by the fact that three of its five starters have just one career start under their belt. Two of those starting offensive linemen are rookies.
However, the Bucs aren't taking the Bills lightly based on what they saw from Buffalo's offensive line in New England on Monday night.
"I saw those guys play at a high level against New England," said Hovan. "I don't care if they're rookies of 10-year veterans. I watched them go into New England and almost get a victory on opening day. What I saw on tape was a group that was pretty dominating."
The Bucs will also have to be careful in their pursuit of Edwards. The Bills offense features screen plays, particularly to running back Fred Jackson, who is filling in for suspended RB Marshawn Lynch. Taylor led the Bills offense in receptions on Monday night.
"The timing on the screens, they did an excellent job," Bates said. "On that last drive when they went up by 11, on that third-and-15 – all the screens were well done and well executed. Of course we have to be on top of our game to defend it. It's a tough play."
Buffalo's offense also features a no-huddle philosophy, which is a bit unusual in the NFL, but was executed quite well by the Bills' Super Bowl teams in the early 1990's.
"It keeps you from switching your personnel groupings a bit," Morris said of the no-huddle. "You basically have to have all your calls ready to go with whatever they put out there. These guys do a lot of the same stuff, and they do it over and over again, and they do it well. That's their strategy. We have to prepare to deal with that. We have to be able to handle them on the field while they try to tire us out, which we should be able to do from playing in this heat. That's the challenge it presents."
Based on the tape he's watched, Hovan said Buffalo isn't running a true no-huddle offense, but their system does pose significant — and similar — challenges.
"I wouldn't say it's a no-huddle as much as I'd say it's a sugar huddle," said Hovan. "It reminds me a lot of what [Colts quarterback] Peyton [Manning] tries to do. They try to come to the line and read your person and the substitutions. They have five or six plays called based on what you're showing them. No-huddle is more like a two-minute drill. The sugar huddle is more of seeing the defense and calling plays off that."
Tampa Bay's defense doesn't have much time to correct the issues it had against Dallas and prepare for the challenges Buffalo's offense poses for Sunday's contest.
The Bucs defense finished 11 of Kiffin's 13 seasons ranked in the top 10. Bates also had top 10 seasons in each of his five seasons in Miami.
Bates believes Tampa Bay's defense can and will correct its mistakes, but patience may be needed with this young group, which features first-year starters in linebackers Quincy Black and Geno Hayes, and defensive backs Piscitelli and Talib.
"It's a challenge for a lot of us as coaches and players," Bates said. "We have a lot of youth. We have a lot of young guys. We may have to go through a little bit, but we're going to grow and we're going to get there. The attitude and the passion of these players are tremendous. Out there on that practice field today was a tremendous practice. There are going to be mistakes when we go up and watch the film, but the effort and attention to detail and focus – there are a lot of good, young players and we have to grow together."