Not surprisingly, the Buccaneers poured a tremendous amount of time and resources into shoring up the secondary during the 2013 offseason. The big moves have been well-documented: signing All-Pro safety
In addition to the new personnel, the Buccaneers also have a new (or, at least, newly-stressed) emphasis on defense: Don't let the opposing team go over the top. It's showing in the stats.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Buccaneers have allowed just six completions of 25 or more yards, tied for the eighth-lowest total in the NFL. At this pace, they will reduce their big plays against to 24, an improvement of nearly 33% from the year before. The Bucs also allowed another 26 completions of 20-24 yards last year, for a total of 63 20+-yard aerial plays. So far this year, they've allowed 13 such plays, on pace for 52.
Best of all, only two of those 13 long completions allowed by the Buccaneers defense this year has gone for 30 or more yards, a 31-yarder by Saints wide receiver Marques Colston and a 56-yard touchdown catch by his teammate, tight end Jimmy Graham in Week Two. That second play was the result of busted coverage due to a miscommunicated defensive audible; Graham caught the ball in the open field and ran most of the way for the score. That has proven to be the anomaly.
“We’re getting pressure on the quarterback, which is critical," said Head Coach Greg Schiano. "We probably haven’t been quite as effective at stopping the run as we were a year ago but I think we’re in the ball park, we just need to do a few things better. And then the biggest thing, there haven’t been deep balls flying over our head. When you can avoid that, you give yourself a chance to win every game. We need to keep that up and keep taking the ball away and putting pressure on the quarterback.”
The Buccaneers have curbed their big-play problem on defense in 2013 despite playing against some very dangerous passers. The Saints' Drew Brees was held relatively in check, completing just four passes of more than 20 yards. The Patriots' Tom Brady had a long completion of 20 yards against the Bucs in Week Three, marking the first time in four years that Brady had gone a whole game without completing a pass of more than 20 yards. Arizona's Carson Palmer has an excellent career average of 7.2 yards per pass attempt and a trio of gifted receivers, but he never got off a completion longer than 27 yards last Sunday.
"Teams that have played us have not thrown the ball deep down the field and I think that’s why we’ve held people to – not as low as we’d like – but a lower scoring total," said Schiano. "When you throw the ball down the field effectively, you have a chance to score points. The old saying is ‘You cover a lot of bad plays’ as that ball goes over the top of that field. You cover a lot of possibilities for bad plays when he catches it.”
Last weekend, Arizona's lone touchdown came after an interception in the Bucs' own red zone. The game-winning field goal a few minutes later came on a drive that started inside Tampa Bay's own 40 after a punt out of the end zone. Both drives were short enough that the Bucs' didn't have a chance to force any of those bad plays. For reasons such as that, none of the improvements mentioned above have resulted in a win yet this season. Obviously, there are still other improvements that must be made on both sides of the ball, but the Buccaneers' defense is at least keeping the team in position to win almost every weekend, largely because it isn't allowing the back-breaking deep balls like it did a year ago.