FAB 3. Bucs’ D Excellent On Third, Fourth Downs

In its heyday back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was known for a lot of things. It was a formidable, dominant unit that featured some legendary players doing some legendary things.

Here are a few examples of the greatness of the Bucs defense in its glory days.

• The creation of the “Tampa 2” defense by head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin – a defense that would propel the Bucs to seven playoff appearances, four division titles and a Super Bowl.

• Leading the Bucs to their 2002 Super Bowl victory with nine defensive touchdowns that season, including three pick-sixes in the Super Bowl.

Legendary Bucs DT Warren Sapp & Jon Gruden - Photo by: Getty Images
Legendary Bucs DT Warren Sapp & Jon Gruden – Photo by: Getty Images

• Hall of Famers in defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, along with Hall of Fame worthy defenders like cornerback Ronde Barber, safety John Lynch and defensive end Simeon Rice.

• Sapp being named the NFL Defensive MVP in 1999, and Brooks winning the same honors in 2002.

• The Bucs defense holding the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf” offense to just 309 yards and 11 points in the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

• No. 1 defensive rankings in 2002 and 2005 under Kiffin.

• An amazing streak of 50 games in which the Bucs defense recorded both a sack and a takeaway from October 29, 2000 vs. Minnesota to November 9, 2003 at Carolina.

But before most of these great accomplishments occurred, something happened.

Tampa Bay’s defense got really good on third down. After allowing teams to convert 40.7 percent on third down in 1996, which ranked 20th in the NFL, the Bucs improved to a 34.1 percent conversion rate on third down in 1997, which ranked 8th. That figure improved to 31.7 percent on third down, which ranked third in the league.

When the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002, the defense allowed 33.6 percent conversions on third down, which ranked third.

Former Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Former Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Third down defense is one of the biggest indicators for a team’s success. Through two games, the Bucs are off to a good start defensively on third down, allowing foes to convert just 30 percent, which is a far cry from a year ago when Mike Smith’s defense allowed a 40.3 percent conversion rate, which ranked 22nd in the league in 2018.

Want to know why the Bucs finished 5-11 in each of the last two years despite having one of the most potent offenses in the league? Tampa Bay’s third down defense was the culprit. In 2017, the Bucs allowed opponents to convert an astounding 48.1 percent on third downs, which was dead last in the NFL.

Smith’s penchant for playing his defenders way off the ball in Quarters coverage led to too many easy conversions for opponents over the past two years.

“It was tough – tough on the outside – when it’s third-and-2 and you’re playing off and you get a short route and give it up,” said Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. “There are guys that are capable of doing it but it’s very limited to guys like Brent Grimes, which is why Coach coached like that. You can do that when you have Brent Grimes. He can play seven yards off on fourth-and-1 and still make a play on the ball. But that’s not everybody. That wasn’t me. That’s not my game. That was one guy out of our 11 on defense – and he was one of a kind.”

Ironically, the Bucs were the best on fourth down stops in 2017, ranking first with 22.2 percent (2-of-9). Fourth down defensive percentages can be an outlier statistic, as evidenced in 2017 and also in ’18 when Tampa Bay ranked 10th with a 50 percent conversion rate.

Former Bucs SS John Lynch
Former Bucs SS John Lynch – Photo by: Getty Images

In fact, in 1997, the Bucs had a Top 10 defense in total yards, scoring defense and third down defense, but ranked 28th on fourth down conversions by allowing opponents to complete 64.7 percent of those tries (11-of-17). The same thing happened to the 2002 defense that won the Super Bowl, as the only thing that vaunted defense couldn’t do right was stop teams on fourth down, evidenced by a 61.5 percent mark (8-of-13), which ranked 26th in the league.

But sometimes a defense can be good on third and fourth down, as was the case in Tampa Bay in 1998, 1999 and 2001 when the Bucs ranked inside the top 12 on both downs in those years. This year’s Tampa Bay defense, which held the Panthers to 3-of-14 (21 percent) on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth down in a win at Carolina on Thursday night, is the same way.

“It’s a stepping stone for us – to get back to the standard,” said Bucs defensive back M.J. Stewart. “That’s how it used to be around here. We’re tired of people talking about the Tampa Bay defense like we’re some slaps. You’ve got to come to play against us, especially our defense. We’re coming to play. We hold ourselves accountable and we’re getting stops.

“It was really big for momentum to get third down stops and fourth down stops. It gets the ball back for our offense and creates big momentum swings for our team. The more we can get our offense the ball the more points we can score.”

Evolution Of Bucs 3rd and 4th Down Defenses Under Kiffin

1996
40.7% on third down – ranked 20th (87-of-214)
76.9% on fourth down – ranked 30th (10-of-13)

1997
34.1% on third down – ranked 8th (75-of-220)
64.7% on fourth down – ranked 28th (11-of-17)

1998
31.7% on third down – ranked 3rd (64-of-202)
21.4% on fourth down – ranked 2nd (3-of-14)

1999
32.5% on third down – ranked 7th (75-of-231)
30.8% on fourth down – ranked 7th (4-of-13)

2000
32.7% on third down –ranked 3rd (74-of-226)
60% on fourth down – ranked 21st (12-of-20)

2001
36.1% on third down – ranked 12th (78-of-216)
30.8% on fourth down – ranked 7th (4-of-13)

2002
33.6% on third down – ranked 3rd (77-of-234)
61.5% on fourth down – ranked 26th (8-of-13)

Now he is a look at how the Bucs defense performed under Smith for three seasons on third and fourth down, and how the unit has exceled in two games under Bowles.

Transition From Smith’s Defense To Bowles’ Defense

2016
34.4% on third down – ranked 1st (67-of-195)
80% on fourth down – ranked 31st (8-of-10)

2017
48.1% on third down – ranked 32nd (104-of-216)
22.2% on fourth down – ranked 1st (2-of-9)

2018
40.3% on third down – ranked 22nd (73-of-181)
50% on fourth down – ranked 10th (7-of-14)

2019
30% on third down – ranked 7th (8-of-27)
0% on fourth down – ranked 1st (0-of-3)

Being efficient on third down and fourth down not only helps a team win, it also creates an identity for the defense.

Tampa Bay safety Jordan Whitehead made the Bucs’ initial stop on fourth down in Carolina when he tackled Panthers quarterback Cam Newton short of the line to gain.

Bucs SS Jordan Whitehead and CB Carlton Davis
Bucs SS Jordan Whitehead and CB Carlton Davis – Photo by: Getty Images

“That’s a great feeling and it sets the tone,” Whitehead said. “It shows how physical our defense is. Early in the game we had a couple fourth-and-1 stops and that set the tone. That’s who we are as a defense and it gives a lot of momentum to our offense. It’s a turnover in our book.

“Watching all the games this weekend they all come down to the end it seems. I saw the Jaguars and Texans come down to a fourth-and-1 at the goal line and they stopped him an inch short. It’s a game of inches and we have to defend every blade of grass. We can’t give up until it’s over.”

New Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians is famous for saying “defend every blade of grass,” and his Buccaneers are buying into that philosophy. And when it’s fourth-and-1, there isn’t much grass to defend.

That was certainly the case at the end of Tampa Bay’s win over Carolina when Hargreaves shoved Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey out of bounds just an inch short of the first down on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ 2-yard line.

“Fourth-and-shorts are 50-50 plays and it can go either way, so you have to be real disciplined and real gap sound on those short distances,” Hargreaves said. “You’ve got a gap and you’ve got to do your job. If you try to do too much that might be the little yard that they need.”

Two games in does not make a season. The Bucs were 2-0 last year after wins against New Orleans and Philadelphia, and finished 3-11 down the stretch. But Tampa Bay’s offense got off to a great start and finished as a Top 10 unit.

Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

The Bucs are hoping they hot start on third and fourth defense is a sign of things to come for the entire 2019 season.

“It’s kind of early, I’ll say that, but we’re all playing better,” Hargreaves said. 
“It’s comforting, no matter how close the game gets or what the situation comes down to that we can get out of it with a big stop on third or fourth down. It’s a challenge and we accept it.”

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th 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 son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]

27 COMMENTS

  1. The article is incorrect, Jalen is playing his 4th season this year and his 5th year option was exercised and is roughly 13M next season.

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  2. NO WAY!!! this guy is cancer. Plus Licht will get rolled and give up too much

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  3. IF..our organization was truly smart, They would have traded or acquired a DE when JPP went down. We need to augment our pass rush and kick it up a notch. We don’t need Ramsey. Chemo has no effect on him.

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    • *cough taco charlton cough just passed on him cough cough *

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      • Didn’t want a 🌮 Taco and a Nacho on the same team. Lol.

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        • But we laugh while being losers and the joke of the NFL huh?

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  4. FAB1) not interested at all. Head case/in it for the $$$$/overrated/much better places to spend $20m of cap space.

    FAB2) Donovan Smith didn’t return to Tamp Bay because he’s some great team-player….we paid him….$14m/yr…more than anybody else (sensibly) was willing to pay for the perennially worst rated LT in the league…a guy who every single week gets “clowned” (as Trevor noted). Comparing his “desire” to be a Buc with Mike Evans or LaVonte is ridiculous!

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  5. Dotson better not bitch about being here, he’s lucky to be here, or on any NFL roster. Mike, and David have been paid, and treated very well during their time here, so I don’t see why’d they want out. Both have been part of the losing, so they shouldn’t complain. It’s great they’re low key guys, and good team mates, I’ll give you that. Saying we have to stop Barkley is two easy, every team game plans for him. This game to me comes down to Winston. If he comes out like he did against the 49ers, we’re in trouble no matter what Barkley does. He has to play like a fourth year franchise QB, and Jones has to play like a rookie getting his first start on the road. If it turns out the other way around, we’re in trouble, and the talk will be which QB we draft next year to replace Jameis. The pressure is on us, if Jones has a good game, and Jameis loses the game for us we’re back to square one.

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  6. Big Game! Go Bucs!

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    Rating: +12. From 12 votes.
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  7. No thanks to Ramsey, I like our young corners and I would like to keep our top picks.

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  8. Will not/cannot mortgage this team’s future with entertaining the idea of signing such a cancer and unstable prima dona like J. Ramsey! We just cleared out a head case and his addition would hurt team more than help! I’m just saying… Go Bucs!

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  9. We should have won the first game but beat ourselves, we won last week but in both games our Offense was stagnant. I hope this week they really start to settle in and find their groove. I have confidence in this Defense because they have held pretty strong so far against the run and getting pressure on the QB but you have to anticipate there will be a couple scores so before we hit the road here it would be really nice to see the Offense get things rollin.

    Starting in the NFL is a long way from Duke and I really hope Vea and Suh and Barrett and Nassib finds ways to welcome him, even though Rookies and backups seem to have our number a lot of times. This Defense gives me more hope than ones of recent years past so we will see.

    Again, I just want to see us continue to improve and get more comfortable with the Schemes and really make use of the talent on both sides of the ball, then the wins will start comin.

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    Rating: +8. From 8 votes.
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  10. And no way should they waste a 1st rounder (and more) on Ramsey. It would be great to have a young Pro Bowl CB but anyone driving a Brinks Truck to Camp is a Turd and hopefully teams have learned from the Brown situation that it’s not worth it.

    Plus that 1st round pick next year is either gonna be for a OT or god forbid a QB so we need that pick. Hargreaves is showin up, Davis has had too many penalties but Bunting will come around this year or next and Dean will be back from injury. With Edwards bound to get better and better and Whitehead back there our Secondary is young but there is a lot of speed mixed in and they are gonna continue to grow together and $20mil a year for one CB can be spent elsewhere like in the Trenches.

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  11. Just want to throw it out there Scott, Millenials never asked for participation trophies, most think they are dumb too. But it was our parents(Gen X and older), that thought it was a good idea. So if you want to blame anyone for “Millenial Entitlement” blame the generations before them that fostered it.

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    • Damn putting the name shameless in this post! I like it!

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  12. Bucs need to tranquilize Winston before games. Maybe TM meditation. He comes out very excited with happy feet and short strides his throws which cause them to be 5 feet of the receivers head, and 100 mph.

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    • IMO the surefire tranquilizer would be to run the first 15 scripted plays with west coast heavy concepts. If they were to move the pocket with designed rollouts to give Jameis easy quick hitters in the flat that gain YAC it would do wonders to get him in a rhythm. I just can’t figure out why this hasn’t occurred in almost 5 years here. It’s always drop back, sit in the pocket and push the ball past the sticks; rinse and repeat. Then we wonder why guys like OJ Howard don’t make an impact on the game, when guys like George Kittle are being moved around like chess pieces getting the ball delivered at or around the LOS and making multiple people miss for 8,10,12+ yard gains on a throw that went about 4 yards. Especially in the redzone. How many easy goal line touchdowns can you remember guys like Peyton or Brady throwing where it was a wide open floater to a guy in the flat? Now how many times have we seen play design like that with Winston at quarterback?

      Sorry for the rant. But yes I agree he’s erratic to begin games I just don’t feel like the gameplans ever do him justice to save him from himself right out of the gate.

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      • Rant away. I agree.

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  13. I can’t stand Ramsey. Not worth the baggage. Another Deshaun Jackson but with even bigger mouth.

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  14. No to Ramsey. Up until this year’s draft, the Ramsey rumors were definitely appealing. Kudos to Licht and coaching staff who drafted DBs and challenged VH3! We’re in no position to be losing draft capital for a DB when we have other needs on the roster for young 1st round talent.

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  15. The Bucs ticket to success this year will be that they will consistently get no love from the media. Thursday was the first taste of this. Big divisional win on the road in primetime – crickets. It will become their fuel to band together and set out to tell the world “F*** you!”. It won’t be this media love affair with the talking heads going “aww look at the Bucs doing well we knew they had it in them!” like many are hoping for. It needs to be a pissed off “you didn’t believe in us so don’t expect us kissing ass on NFLN” after every underdog win this year.

    Jalen Ramsey doesn’t fit this equation simply because the media slurps up anything related to him. Thinks he should be getting 20 million a year and wants to see him on the Cowboys or Chiefs. If he was the one making that game winning tackle against McCaffery it’d be world-news and people would be beside themselves talking about his greatness.

    I personally want no part in that. The Bucs can do it without this guy. Continue to stop the run at an elite level and these young cornerbacks will develop just fine. They are in maybe the best hands possible given their skillsets (Todd Bowles).

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  16. Let Ramsey walk on by.

    Big game on Sunday. Pressure is on Bowles to put a game plan together that welcomes Daniel Jones to the NFL in the tradition of the old Buccaneer defenses of Tony and Monte. And on Rhonde’s big day, nothing would be better!

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  17. Sweet irony what happened to AB today isn’t it? Lost endorsements and now his job. Nobody is bigger than the game…ask Pete Rose! I hope there is a solid game plan dialed up to gang tackle Saquan and pressure this young QB! Let them dogs loose and let’s eat this “W”! Go Bucs!

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  18. Fab 2 is one of the more pointless items I have seen on this site period.

    Who cares? Did anyone learn anything? Maybe just post an op-Ed about how you don’t like millennials, “participation trophies”, and how much you value a contract. Just don’t post it under the guise of something informative or like it has anything to do with the Bucs

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  19. You would play Eli against this Bucs team? He won 5 of the last 6 against us, sure. Yet you fall to consider way more important factors:

    1) This Bowles defense is completely different. We are creating pressure and our secondary looks competent.
    2) Eli has no ability to extend with his feet, and would get crushed. Jones may be a rookie, but he can move and has better tools.
    3) Anyone off the street could have beaten the Bucs the last 6 years (and did). That Eli record against us is a meaningless statistic.

    Bucs 30, Giants 13

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  20. This fab 1 is the reason we have sucked for so many years. Saving money for VH3? We are hoping and praying as a fan base that Hargreaves becomes half the corner that Jalen Ramsey is, then we would be happy to pay him? Instead of paying him and other average players, why can’t we accept the fact that licht just cannot draft corners well, he drafts a lot of them but not good ones (see MJ Stewart and Bunting). Our Achilles heal this season will be the fact that we don’t have anyone capable of shadowing a teams 1 WR, and we will get torn up when we go against teams with a premier WR like Julio Jones.

    When a walking future hall of famer because available in their primes, you break the rules. You trade a little more than you should. You let other average role players walk. Look at what the bears did with Khalil Mack. Is anyone saying today that they gave up too much?

    But my main point is this. Why do players who hate to lose become the villains? In our case, I feel like too many players like Gerald McCoy for many years didn’t care enough about losing. Our team needs more fiery competitors that hate losing more than they like winning. Only when we have players like that will we turn the culture around.

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  21. Who edited the copy of this piece? Embarrassing failure on the editor’s part with constant spelling, grammatical and word misuses. Mike Evans, don’t ever consider “living” us!

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