DE Greg White says the opening game will spur the Bucs' defense to an even greater effort
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense surrendered 438 yards of offense in New Orleans last Sunday, the most it has allowed any team since Chicago rang up 446 in Week 15 of the 2006 season. Strangely, though, it didn't feel like the Buccaneers' worst defensive performance in 21 months.
In fact, there were quite a few plays that seemed to signal that the Bucs' defense would be as strong as ever in 2008, whether it was Chris Hovan sticking Reggie Bush two yards deep in the backfield in the second quarter or Ronde Barber separating Bush from the football with a perfectly-timed blast in the third period.
Head Coach Jon Gruden and more than a few Bucs have since suggested that it was in many ways a good defensive performance spoiled by a very small handful of bad moments. Those were easy to pinpoint; in particular, Tampa Bay was beat by touchdown catches of 39, 42 and 84 yards by David Patten, Bush and Devery Henderson, respectively.
"We really played pretty good defense when you look at it, at times great defense," said Gruden. "That's the unfortunate thing. If you could take away four or five plays in that game you'd be pretty excited about what just transpired. But we're known around here for not giving up the big plays and we got bitten. In some ways hopefully it gets our guys' attention, and I believe it did."
Gruden clearly understands that you can't take away those four or five plays when evaluating the performance of the defense. You can, however, reasonably expect to correct those few mistakes before the next game and instead build on what went right in the opener. Fortunately, Buccaneer defenders remain confident, and feel as if that trio of touchdown passes was a bit fluky, or at least easily avoided.
After all, the last time the Buccaneers gave up three receptions of 39 or more yards in a single game was October 10, 1999, against the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre. The choice of "39 or more" is a bit arbitrary, of course, and is simply based on what happened in New Orleans. There have been some other games in which the Bucs have given up three TD passes of 30 or more yards – the infamous Indianapolis game in 2003 comes to mind – but even those are few and far between.
"We in the secondary and the defensive backs room, we'll take responsibility for that," said safety Jermaine Phillips of the Saints' big long gains in the air. "Big plays are something that we're not supposed to give up. We're not supposed to give up explosion plays. Talib was in great position, he just jumped too early. Ronde was in great position and he just fell down. And I missed a tackle on Reggie Bush and all those resulted in touchdowns. If you take those away, I think we played pretty well. We played hard and we played fast, so that's all we can ask for right now."
The Buccaneers will likely find out right away if they really have succeeded in cleaning up the issues that led to the big strikes in New Orleans. Up next is the Atlanta Falcons, who just happened to have recorded two touchdowns of more than 60 yards in the first quarter of the first game of their season. Atlanta later tacked on gains of 29 and 46 yards and, on a somewhat smaller scale, had a string of seven plays in the second half on which they gained more than 10 yards on six of them.
All of those big gains added up to 474 yards in a 34-21 win over Detroit. They also allowed the Falcons to keep the pressure off rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw only 13 passes in his regular-season debut, completing nine for 161 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
So the Buccaneers have to fix their big-play issue from Week One against a team that thrived on the big play on the same weekend. There was a lot to like in Tampa Bay's season-opening performance on defense, no matter what the final yardage total was, but it wasn't adequate to stop the Saints and it wouldn't be adequate against the Falcons, either.
"It's not good enough," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "It's not acceptable in this defense. We don't give up the big play in this defense. We watched the tape, we know what we did wrong, we corrected it, and now we're getting ready for Atlanta. This week we want to go out there and not give up any yards at all, really, and most of all, not give up the big play."
Added defensive end Gaines Adams: "That's not us as a defense. We made a lot of missed tackles and we've just got to do better than that. Normally we don't miss tackles but sometimes it happens."
Fortunately, the stumbles of Week One appear to have fully captured the team's attention, as Gruden hoped it would.
"It's a learning experience, and it's good for us," said defensive end Greg White. "We're not as good as we thought we were and we're going to work even harder this year to get back to where we want to be."