Where the Buccaneers' offense needed time to mesh and come together, the story of the Bucs' defense is rather that of consistency and continuing where they left off in the latter part of 2019. And that's essentially exactly what they did. The defense finished with more interceptions, more sacks and more tackles for loss than they did in 2019.
They went from ranking 15th in 2019 in total defense to finishing sixth in 2020. This was after Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles inherited a unit ranked 27th, mind you.
Where the strength of this defense lies is with its front seven and yet again stopping the run in an effort to make opposing teams one-dimensional. It worked, while the Buccaneers continued to get after the passer, this year seeing more pressure from their interior linemen. The secondary improved, recording more takeaways last year and even helping out the pass rush from time to time as it got more creative in the second year under Bowles.
Here are some of the highlights as we evaluate the 2020 Buccaneers defense of the regular season as they enter into their first playoff game since 2007.
The Run Defense
As mentioned above, the run defense remained consistent from the very beginning of the season. In Week One, despite the loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Bucs held a formidable rushing attack, one that includes running back Alvin Kamara to just 87 rushing yards.
Fast forward toward the end of the season and the Buccaneers limited another division rival as they kept the Falcons to just 37 yards in Atlanta during Week 15.
Since 2019, the Buccaneer defense has allowed the fewest yards on the ground per game, letting up an average of just 77.2. In that same span, they've allowed just 3.43 yards per rushing play, also the best mark in the league.
This is a perfect time to shoutout Lavonte David and all he means to this team. Not only is David a phenomenal coverage linebacker, he's a force against the run with his instincts and speed. Just take a look.
The Pass Rush
I don't think you can argue that the pass rush certainly got more creative this year as the Bucs tallied 48.0 sacks on the season, the fourth-most of any team in the NFL. Not only was it another good season for their defensive bookends in Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for 17.5 sacks, but the interior of the defensive line was able to get more pressure, even with losing defensive tackle Vita Vea in Week Five. Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh finished 6.0 sacks – the most since his first year with the Miami Dolphins in 2015.
This may have been my favorite of the lot.
William Gholston matched his single-season high of 3.0, as well. And then there was inside linebacker Devin White, who said in training camp his goal was to get five sacks this season.
He got 9.0.
That total leads all inside linebackers in the league and ranks in the top five of any player not on the defensive line. It was a concerted effort from the entire defense that allowed White the success he had, though. The guys up front often took on multiple blockers to free up a path for White to the quarterback. You had outside linebackers like JPP at times covering underneath routes and the flat in order to free up White and create confusion. That paid off for JPP, too – we'll talk about that in a bit.
But White had some truly incredible performances this year, tallying a hat trick of 3.0 sacks in multiple games – like in Las Vegas, where White had a total of three sacks credited to him,
This was the fun zero-yard sack White had on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. The pocket collapses thanks to the interior pressure and Carr is left to scramble. It gave White, who had initially dropped into coverage, enough time to react though and White used his insane closing speed to get to Carr before he could get beyond the line of scrimmage. Insane.
This was the final blow that knocked Aaron Rodgers out of the game. It came on third down in the fourth quarter and watch David take on a defensive tackle while Jeremiah Ledbetter takes on a double team to give White a clear shot at Rodgers.
Like we alluded to before, the Buccaneers also got help in rushing the passer from defensive backs. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had 3.0 sacks, two of which were strip sacks. It pays off when a ball hawk gets to the quarterback.
Winfield starts playing it coy here but he's mirroring David as they flank the defensive line in a flex front, though Pierre-Paul is standing up. With Anthony Nelson in the five, the Vikings tackle is forced to take him. This would be where a running back would be useful, blocking the rush from a blitzing safety but this was a called play action and Dalvin Cook had to sell the handoff. The right tackle barely chips Barrett and Cousins sees both Barrett and David bearing down on him but Winfield got a head start and takes him down from his blind side – and takes the ball with him in the process.
The Bucs would have maybe seen even more defensive back sacks had they not lost Vea early. With Vea and Suh taking up multiple blockers and getting pressure on the quarterback quickly, you can take more of a gamble with your defensive backs and use them to rush. If you know that your front can at least disrupt the quarterback quickly, it puts less stress on the secondary, thereby potentially freeing one of your safeties or corners to blitz. Safety Jordan Whitehead got the first (and second) sack of his career this season.
This was his first in Denver. Notice JPP and Shaq to the same side, completely confusing the offense line. Barrett is actually the one who takes the tight end while JPP cuts to the outside, drawing with him the attention of the right guard, who by the time he realizes Whitehead is coming – it's too late.
Then there was this formation. It wasn't a sack – but Whitehead is lined up as the nose tackle with Suh as a middle linebacker. This defense was just having an enormous amount of fun at times and you just absolutely love to see it.
But my favorite stat of the season, perhaps? Wide receiver Justin Watson registered a sack this year. It came on a fake punt attempt that Watson was ready for as he took down Carolina's punter in Week 10, thereby counting as a sack since the ball was snapped to him.
The secondary really showed what they were capable of in Week Six against the Green Bay Packers. The Bucs allowed the fewest passing yards all season to one of the best quarterbacks in the league, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 107 yards through the air, no touchdowns and not one but two interceptions – including just the third pick-six of Rodgers career.
It came on this play from Jamel Dean.
And overall, the secondary improved year over year. They finished with 15 interceptions, one more than their 14 in 2019 and finished with 70 passes defensed. Carlton Davis fell one shy of his 2019 total of 19, but then he also missed the last couple games of the season and he still ended up leading the team.
And while the Bucs still gave up more passing yards than they would have liked, they improved nine spots from 2019, finishing at number 21 in passing yards allowed, they helped the defense as a whole improve to sixth in total yards allowed in 2020, up from 15th in 2019.
They also improved where it counts: the scoreboard. Given the amount of takeaways they were able to generate and the decline in sudden-change situations due to turnovers from the offense, the Bucs finished with the sixth-best turnover margin of the 2020 regular season at +8. The Bucs' defense had a top 10 ranking in points allowed, letting up an average of just 22.2 per game to rank eighth.
So while the yardage totals may not be what they set out for in 2020, they still managed to get the job done in all the ways that matter.
Since the start of 2019, the Buccaneer defense has recorded 53 takeaways, which is tied for fourth in the league in that span. What's more is that the Bucs have capitalized on those takeaways, ranking second in the league in that span with 231 points scored off takeaways.
You saw the Dean pick-six from Rodgers above, but there were a few other situations in which the Buccaneers' defense came up big, giving the Bucs' offense the opportunity to change the tides of the game or seal the victory for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs were up by just one score, 38-31, in the fourth quarter and the Chargers were driving. Tampa Bay had already mounted a 17-point comeback and didn't want it all to be for naught. As the ball is snapped, the Bucs look to be in Cover 3 with Winfield Jr. as the single-high safety as Whitehead had crept down inside the box. Davis is therefore playing off as he sees the Chargers receive enter his zone, meanwhile he's keeping his head toward quarterback Justin Herbert to see where he's going with the ball. It looks like Herbert's intended receiver was supposed to keep going on this route but he doesn't and Herbert severely overthrows him. Because Davis had been paying attention, he was able to get to the spot and make the grab instead.
A lot of people, myself included, talk about Dean's pick six of Brady but show of hands who remembers that safety Mike Edwards picked Rodgers off on the very next series to prevent the Packers from answering with an immediate score? Take a look.
And then there was the regular season finale, when cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting sealed the game, which had been a little too close for comfort for the Bucs up until that point, with a forced fumble and subsequent fumble recovery. This is really nothing more than Murphy-Bunting showing off his physicality as he physically rips the ball out and then picks it up. Awesome.
So while everyone has been talking about the Washington defensive front as the Bucs head into their Wild Card matchup with The Football Team, just know that Washington's offense is going to have a challenge of their own come Saturday.