Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Thursday, November 17.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has had an up-and-down season in 2016, to be sure. The Buccaneers were 22nd in the league rankings after two weeks before rising steadily to 13th by the end of Week Seven. Two games later, that rank had plummeted back to 28th.
Now, it's true that league rankings are based on yards allowed, which isn't the most reliable statistic. Tampa Bay's next opponent, for instance, is the Kansas City Chiefs, who currently rank 22nd in yards allowed but seventh in points allowed. Few analysts would rate the Chiefs defense in the bottom half of the league.
But points tell the same story for Tampa Bay. The Bucs were last in points allowed thorough the first three weeks of the season (33.7 per game), 10th in that category over the next four weeks (19.3) and then 31st over the next fortnight (36.5). The strength of opponents in those various stretches is worth noting – Atlanta, for instance, shows up in the first and third segments – but Buccaneer coaches would say the team needs to be competitive against any foe.
The optimistic reading of this roller coaster ride is that the team struggled for several weeks to get acclimated to the schemes of new defensive coordinator Mike Smith before finding its footing. A hiccup followed against two very good offenses (Oakland and Atlanta), revealing some significant problems in communication on defense, but a "mini-bye" following the Week Nine Thursday night game gave the team time to identify and correct its problems. By that reading, the defense's suffocating performance against Chicago last Sunday was a sign that the evaluation process worked and the defense has righted itself.
"We hope that that carries over, and not only carries over but that you build on that going forward," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "But until we play more games we're really not going to know. But we definitely saw some dramatic improvement in some of the areas that Coach Smith and the defensive staff stressed."
A follow-up game in the unfriendly environment of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs have won 10 straight, will be a very good test to see if the Bucs are indeed back on track and headed in the right direction. Still, there is a clear belief at One Buccaneer Place that the progress is real and that the communication issues that plagued the defense in Weeks Eight and Nine have been resolved.
"That's what helped us make those plays," said defensive captain Gerald McCoy. "You could see, it was all over the field. It wasn't just one person. In this defense there are plays out there for everybody, and when we're on the same page you've seen what can happen on Sunday. Everybody has an opportunity to make a play."
READ: SCOUTING REPORT - CHIEFS
Getting most of a previously banged-up defensive line back in the mix certainly helped. Starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald returned after missing four games and starting right end Robert Ayers was closer to a full recovery from his ankle injury. McDonald had a tone-setting sack of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the first quarter on Sunday and Ayers eventually added 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble that turned into a safety. McDonald and Ayers have 177 NFL games played between them, and as much as the Buccaneers' appreciated the play of the young defenders who took on larger roles while those two were injured, that combined experience and leadership was immensely helpful in solving communication issues. The mini-bye obviously helped get those two back in the mix, and it helped everyone on defense get a better understanding of their roles.
"I think it's important when you get an opportunity to take a deep breath and evaluate and not always be focused on the next thing, the next thing," said Smith. "You get a chance to see what we've done well as a coaching staff, what we've done poorly as a coaching staff and what our players have done well and poorly and we're trying to play to their strengths. We got some guys back that are feeling better and healthier, so I think that helped us as well. But, we spent a lot of time evaluating across the board.
"I do think that the guys had a much better understanding of what we were trying to get accomplished. Our communication was leaps and bounds better than what it's been in the previous games. So, we're starting to see some progress in that area."
Chicago's only touchdown in the Bucs' 36-10 win was a fluky Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half. Otherwise, the Bears' lone scoring drive was a 28-yard field goal march set up when the Bucs had to kick off from their own 20. Chicago converted only two of 11 third-down tries and, in general, found far fewer opportunities for uncontested passes than the Bucs had given up to Oakland and Atlanta.
According to McCoy that was a product of the detailed work that the team put in with the extra time afforded to it. And even if there will be no more "mini-byes" on the schedule, the players have to continue with that sort of preparation.
"You've got to do it in the film room before you can do it on the field," said McCoy, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks. "Then you've got to take it to the practice field for walk-through, then you've got to take it to the real practice and then you do it on Sunday. But if you don't know what you're doing, and if you're not all on the same page, if you don't visualize the win, you don't have a shot. And I think last week that was different for everybody.
"We were all on the same page. We just have to be consistent with that."