The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New York Giants with the second-ranked defense in the NFL, statistically. But after surrendering 24 points to the Giants – seven of which came at the end of a 15-play, 92-yard drive – you have to wonder if that ranking was accomplished with smoke and mirrors.

Yes, Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s defense showed remarkable improvement in areas ranging from pass defense (first), sacks (16th) and scoring defense (3rd), but the Achilles heel for Tampa Bay in 2007 has easily been its red zone defense.

Surprisingly, Tampa Bay allowed the fewest trips to the red zone of any NFL defense (35) in 2007. But once they were there, opponents found the end zone a stunning 60 percent of the time, which ranks 29th in the NFL. Out of the 35 trips to the red zone Tampa Bay allowed, the Bucs surrendered 21 touchdowns compared to only nine field goals. That doesn't include two touchdowns from inside the 23-yard line against San Francisco, either.

Against the Giants, the Bucs gave up three red zone touchdowns and only forced one field goal. If Tampa Bay had been able to hold New York to two field goals instead of two touchdowns in the first half, the Bucs would have led 7-6 at halftime. Had the Giants been shut out of the end zone and forced to kick field goals over the entire contest, the Bucs would have won the game 14-12, despite a sluggish offense that only found the red zone twice itself and scored only two touchdowns against New York.

“If you're looking for an explanation and a reason, yeah, that'd be it,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said of Tampa Bay’s red zone woes. “That's something that we did well at the beginning of our football season – keeping guys out of our end zone. From the Houston game on – and then the last two [games] with some [young] guys getting some looks – but other than that, that's definitely a weakness of ours.”

In all four of Tampa Bay’s last losses, starting with the 28-14 defeat at Houston, the Bucs defense surrendered a total of 12 touchdowns and forced only two field goals from inside the 23-yard line.

“Wow. Actually, I didn't know we only forced one field goal in the losses leading up to New York,” Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “You know what? We've always been a bend-but-don't-break defense, and we did a great job of not giving up big plays this whole year. But once you get down in the red zone – the Tampa 2 is built for inside the 20-yard line because there's nowhere to throw the ball. But we've got to do a better job of that because, even with today, if we'd held them to a couple field goals instead of touchdowns and it'd be a whole different ball game.”

Had Tampa Bay only given up field goals in the red zone, as it did in the third quarter following a fumbled kickoff by Micheal Spurlock, the team could have been game-planning for the Dallas Cowboys next weekend.

“It certainly hurt us today,” Gruden said of Tampa Bay’s red zone defense. “All I can say is they got us on the same play twice. The gap protection, it looks like the back is blocking a defensive end and he’s not. It was a well-designed play; they did an excellent job in execution. That’s an area we have to make dramatic improvement in to continue to play at this level.”

Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan lamented over the fact that the defense has not been able to force any red zone turnovers in its last four games.

“This defense is based on – when we go back over it – it's either three points, three-and-outs or turnover,” Hovan said. “You're right. You would think when we get into the red zone we'd want to stop them, hopefully give them only three, maybe not even that. But [the Giants] scored three touchdowns when they were in that red zone today and that's not acceptable. We'll have to go back and look at it, but and at the same time, we've just got to make plays."

Perhaps what is most disturbing about all of the recent TDs inside the 23-yard line in the four losses over the final month of the season is that 10 of them came on touchdown passes against the NFL’s number one-ranked pass defense.

“The first goal is not to let them run it, but a touchdown is a touchdown,” Ruud said. “You don't want to be like, 'Well, these are all passing touchdowns,' because like I said, a touchdown is a touchdown. We've got to try to find a way to hold them to field goals and that's something definitely we've got to address this offseason. We've got to get better at that. I think one thing I've learned about our coaches, at least in the three years I've been here is there very good. They correct problems, they don't just say, 'We’ll figure something out.' They get down [there] and they figure it out.”

Unfortunately for Tampa Bay’s coaching staff, it will have all the time in the world to study and hopefully correct the red zone defense’s deficiencies as the Bucs’ 2007 season has come to an abrupt end.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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