Every day, the pass rush gets a bit better. No, it isn’t, say, that of the ’85 Bears. But it’s growing, and it’s getting better. It isn’t benign anymore.
Every day, the coverage gets a little tighter. No, it isn’t the ’89 49ers. But it’s better, and it’s combative. It isn’t chasing receivers anymore.
Every day, the linebackers come up with the big play. No, they aren’t the ’79 Steelers. But they’re better, and they tackle crisply, and they know where the end zone is.
Every week, every game, the Tampa Bay Bucs defense gets better, smarter and hungrier. Every time out, at that time when there is a game to be won, they make plays. Their belief grows. Their competitiveness soars. Once again, you can smile when you see the Bucs defense take the field as it did in Sunday’s 28-21 win at San Diego, which was Tampa Bay’s fourth straight win and fifth straight victory on the road this year.
Bucs LBs Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images
For a month, it has been that way. They made Jay Cutler look confused … again. They shut down Alex Smith. They harassed Russell Wilson. And they snatched one away from Philip Rivers. For a month now, they have been the real deal. Call it the rebirth of the bruise.
If you’re asking, no, this defense doesn’t have the raw talent of the great Bucs teams. There is no Derrick Brooks, no Warren Sapp, no John Lynch, no Ronde Barber, and no Simeon Rice. But these guys play hard, and they seem to have begun to believe that someone in the huddle is going to make a play during the game.
“Our coach just made different calls for the stuff that they were hitting us with,” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David about the team’s halftime adjustments. “It was a great adjustment at halftime. Guys came out playing harder, making an emphasis on getting the football out and creating takeaways. That’s what we were preaching on, guys staying resilient and staying in tune with everything that’s going on no matter what’s going on through the game. All we can do is just focus on getting better each play.”
Think about it. Vernon Hargreaves is better now than he was a month ago. Noah Spence is better. Robert Ayers is better. Bradley McDougald is better. This is a work in progress, and the good news is this: It’s progressing.
Think about it. Over their last four games, the Bucs have surrendered 53 points. That’s 13.25 points per game. A team can win with that.
Over their last four games, the Bucs have 11 takeaways (as many as their first eight games). A team can win with that. Over their last four games, the Bucs have a dozen sacks. A team can win with that, too.
Who saw this coming? After watching the Raiders and the Falcons take turns at spinning the Bucs in tiny circles, no one would have thought this team would have gotten so much so fast out of these defenders. Sure, it helped that the team got healthy. But that wasn’t all of it. Getting two takeaways a game – as the Bucs have for a month – doesn’t hurt, either.
Bucs S Keith Tandy – Photo by: Getty Images
“We’re one of those teams that are starting to believe,” said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. “It’s crazy what confidence can do when you start making plays. It starts to build on itself.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith – who should be the Bucs’ nominee for Assistant Coach of the Year –has credited improved communication. Were the Bucs speaking different languages earlier? And, furthermore, who cares?
Consider this: The Chargers had the ball five times in the second half. They scored seven points. They had two punts. They threw two picks.
In the third quarter, the Bucs punted to the Chargers’ 8-yard line. And you immediately thought: Good teams make a stop here.
The Bucs did better than that. On the first play of that drive, Hargreaves batted the ball away and David grabbed it and ran 15 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to make it 17-14 in the third quarter.
If that wasn’t big enough, go back to the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Chargers put together a 10-play drive for their last real shot at the game. Twice, the Chargers picked up a third down. But on second-and-one, Philip Rivers threw to the front corner of the end zone, and Keith Tandy intercepted it.
It has gone this way lately. It is Chris Conte at the goal line against Kansas City. It is Alterraun Verner against Seattle. It is Robert Ayers against the Bears. And so on.
Look, the Bucs have played well enough on offense, too. Jameis Winston was good again, and although Mike Evans was surrounded, Cameron Brate was great.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images
But with the Bucs, you can see the growth on defense. Gerald McCoy has been a terror and has a team-high seven sacks. Ayers has been great. David has been possessed. Alexander is fierce.
And so you look at the season’s final month. The Bucs play New Orleans twice, and the Saints will be a chore twice. Dallas is ahead. Carolina is ahead.
So what? At this point, the Bucs have earned a shot. Look, there are only six teams in the NFL who have more than seven wins: New England, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, Dallas and Detroit. No team in the NFC South has allowed fewer points than the Bucs.
In other words, the Bucs are closer to elite than we thought at any time in recent seasons. But these defensive backs aren’t matadors anymore. These defensive linemen no longer fluff the pillows of the opposing quarterbacks. The linebackers keep taking the ball away.
Me? I can’t wait until tomorrow.
These guys get better every day.
No one has won more awards, including two national Associated Press Sports Editors Best Columnist awards and eight top 10 finishes, than the legendary Gary Shelton, former sports columnist of the St. Petersburg Times. Shelton returns to PewterReport.com for his second season of providing post-game commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like no one else can.
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Legendary sports columnist Gary Shelton returns to PewterReport.com for his second season of providing post-game commentary on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like no one else can. No one has won more sports writing awards than Shelton, who has covered Tampa Bay area sports for decades with his unique brand of humor and insight. Bucs fans can Shelton daily on GarySheltonSports.com and follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton
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