Wait. How are the Buccaneers 8-5 and currently in line for the NFC’s second wild-card spot? Weren’t they once 1-3 and giving up more points than any team in the NFL? Was that really this season? And wasn’t it just six weeks ago that Matt Ryan and the Falcons did this to the Bucs in prime time, which happened a mere four days after the Raiders rolled up a league-high 626 total yards against them? Are we really talking about the same Tampa Bay Buccaneers here?
Yup. Totally are. The Bucs haven’t lost since the Falcons pooped on them back in Week 9, and their defense—the same defense that somehow allowed the sorry-ass Rams to hang 37 on them in Week 3—is a huge reason why.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, the in-season turnaround by Tampa Bay’s defense is on a historic pace: With three games remaining, the Bucs’ points per game allowed has improved from 29.0 in Games 1-8 to 12.8 in Games 9-13, a decrease of 16.2. The NFL record for a first-half to second-half swing in points per game allowed is 15.6, and no team since 1988 has has made an improvement of better than 14.5. The Bucs still have to play the Cowboys, Saints, and Panthers, but they’ve shown their bona fides against some pretty good teams and quarterbacks in recent weeks. They beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, and they most recently defeated Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees, holding that trio to just 4.8 yards per pass and a combined passer rating of 53.5. It’s been a while—the Bucs haven’t had a winning season since 2010, and haven’t made the playoffs since ’07—but they finally appear to be no joke.
The reason for the Bucs’ sudden turn of success? Defensive coordinator Mike Smith—who as a head coach had the Falcons on the brink of the Super Bowl just four years ago—has scaled back the playbook. “Ever since the little mini-bye, the Thursday night game [against the Falcons], Smitty and the defensive coaches cut it back a little bit, simplified things, maybe doing a little bit less,” head coach Dirk Koetter said after beating the Seahawks in Week 12. “[It] let these guys play faster and they’ve responded.”
What the Bucs have started doing is creating turnovers. They’re a plus-6 in turnover differential on the season, but they were minus-9 after their 1-3 start. They’re now tied for the league lead with 25 takeaways, but 23 of those have come in the last nine games, including 14 during their current five-game winning streak, when they haven’t had a game with fewer than two. It’s not all the luck of recovering fumbles, either—10 of the Bucs’ 14 takeaways during their winning streak have been interceptions, with seven coming in the last three games against Wilson, Rivers, and Brees.
What the Bucs have done especially well is bring pressure with their front four, which has had the effect of enabling their coverage, as it often does. (See also: the Giants.) Per Pro Football Focus, Robert Ayers—now age 31—ranks fourth in the league among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity, a metric that adds up sacks, hits, and hurries (with greater weight given to sacks) per pass-rushing snap. And veteran mainstay Gerald McCoy’s PRP ranks sixth among 4-3 defensive tackles.
Ayers missed several games early in the season with an ankle injury, and his return has helped immensely. The Bucs have the second-best third-down defense in the league this season, with teams converting on them just 34.19 percent of the time. And it’s on third down that they like to change things up—also much like the Giants—by bumping Ayers inside and bringing in rookie second-round pick Noah Spence to play on the edge. But the Bucs are getting plenty of pressure even though they’ve blitzed on just 25.5 percent of passing plays this season, far below the league average of 30.5 percent. And outside linebacker Lavonte David and inside linebacker Kwon Alexander are as versatile as they come, capable of playing all three downs because of their ability to rush the passer, stop the run, and drop into coverage. David ranks 11th in the league in tackles for loss percentage, and the Bucs are fifth-best in DVOA against versus tight ends. And Both David and Alexander have played nearly every snap this season.
Situational defensive end Ryan Russell has played just 13.2 percent of the snaps this year, but when he sees McCoy drawing a double-team against the Seahawks, he stunts inside to force Russell Wilson from the pocket and toward Ayers, resulting in an incompletion:
Later in that same game, Russell gets to Wilson for his first career sack with a similar stunt:
The effectiveness of the Bucs’ four-man rush allows them to drop seven into coverage, from which they frequently deploy a Cover 2, with two deep safeties, with five defenders underneath. And lots of times when they do that—and the quarterback has little time to throw because of the effectiveness of their pass rush—there isn’t a whole lot of time for anyone to get open:
The Bucs have gotten great play from safeties Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte, but with Conte nursing a chest injury that kept him out the last two weeks, they’ve subbed in Keith Tandy. Tandy has come up with game-ending interceptions in both games, but his impact has been felt in other ways.
Here’s Tandy in Cover 2 against the Saints on Sunday. Watch at the bottom of the screen as he recognizes the drag route underneath and jumps it, tipping the ball so cornerback Brent Grimes can pick it off:
And on this play, the Bucs’ Cover 2 transforms into a Cover 3, with Tandy (bottom left corner) starting deep before stepping forward just as cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (bottom of screen) drops into deep center. That shift confuses Brees, who tries to jam a pass into heavy coverage deep down the middle, where it’s tipped by Alexander and caught by Hargreaves:
Now watch the communication between Lavonte David and cornerback Alterraun Verner to switch their coverage here, with David taking the short route to the outside and Verner back deep. Russell Wilson doesn’t see it, and Verner is able to jump the route for a pick:
Here’s how effective the Bucs have been with their zone: According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, opposing quarterbacks have a league-worst QBR of 28.8 against them on throws within six yards of the line of scrimmage. The Bucs have the third-best DVOA against on passes thrown up to 15 yards in the air, and versus No. 1 wide receivers. Hargreaves (their rookie first-round pick) and Grimes (tied for second in the league with 17 passes defensed) play every down. Check out Verner, subbing for a hurt Grimes, reading this curl route by the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill to prevent a completion:
And here’s Hargreaves jumping a route and causing a deflection that David picks off and returns for a touchdown against the Chargers:
McCoy, David, McDougald, Verner, and Alexander have all been with the Bucs for a few seasons. But many other contributors on this defense are recent acquisitions: Ayers and Grimes came over this offseason in free agency, while Hargreaves was selected in the first round of this year’s draft, and Spence in Round 2. Tampa Bay seemed to have found its quarterback when it took Jameis Winston in the first round just last year, but what the Bucs are doing defensively is proof that they’re building a foundation on the other side of the ball, too. Already, there might even be a playoff berth in the offing, just two years after they had the No. 1 overall pick.