The Tampa Bay Buccaneers conducted 40 training camps prior to the summer of 2016, and whether they were working at the University of Tampa, Disney's Wide World of Sports or their own headquarters, most of them had one thing in common.
Well, two things, actually. The first, obviously, was the oppressive heat. The second: The defense was almost always ahead of the offense in July and August.
On paper, this year looked like it would be different. Tampa Bay's offense finished surpassed 6,000 yards in 2015 for the first time in franchise history, and virtually all of its young, star-studded core was returning for 2016. The same man was in charge of the play-calling, though Dirk Koetter had risen from offensive coordinator to head coach in the interim. The returning players knew the playbook well and were ready to dive even deeper into its offerings.
By contrast, the Buccaneers' defense struggled in 2015, particularly against the pass, and underwent a change at the top. Koetter brought in Mike Smith, his former colleague in both Jacksonville and Atlanta, and Smith brought in a new playbook and a mostly new staff of assistants. The depth chart has a different look, too, with such offseason additions as defensive ends Robert Ayers and Noah Spence and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves.
So if there was ever going to be the Summer of Offense at One Buccaneer Place, it looked like 2016 was as good a bet as any.
Through the first four days of training camp practices, however, the defense has kept up quite well. The defensive line, in particular has turned in two strong days since first shoulder pads and then full pads have gone on.
"Well, I think if you watched that last team period you'd think the defense was the one that had the extra [time with the] playbook," said Koetter. "The defense got after the offense pretty good in that last period. Both sides are coming along fine. There's probably an advantage to the offense but I like what our D's doing a lot, too."
While every positive for one side in practice obviously means something else for the other side, it's certainly a good sign that the pass rush is standing out. Finding ways to get more heat on the quarterback was one of the primary goals of this past offseason. With Smith in charge, that might include some more aggressive blitzing.
This was Koetter's assessment after Saturday's practice: "Oh, yeah. The looks that they're giving us, and they were real aggressive with their blitzes today, a lot of nickel off the slot. It's great work for our quarterbacks to have to get the ball out of their hands. If we were playing real football, those quarterbacks would have been taking some hits today, which is not good, not good for our quarterbacks but good for the other ones."
And he followed with this on Sunday, the first day in full pads: "That second-to-last team period today was a blitz period and we had about three times that the quarterback would've taken big hits there. That's great work for our offense to see multiple blitzes like that."
Just like the offense, which ranked fifth in yards gained last year but just 20th in points, Tampa Bay's defense had a somewhat misleading finish in 2015. The Buccaneers allowed the 10th fewest yards in the league last year but the seventh most points. The defense struggled significantly on third downs, allowed a 70% completion rate and contributed to the team's overall problem with penalties. The Bucs will almost certainly be more aggressive under Mike Smith, but they also intend to be much more sound and disciplined.
Impressively, that's already showing up during the first week in camp, as defenders have mostly been in the right place. Koetter has enjoyed that development, though it wasn't unexpected.
"I wouldn't say [I'm] surprised because I know Mike Smith, I know [Linebackers Coach] Mark Duffner, I know [Defensive Line Coach] Jay Hayes, I know [Secondary Coach] Jon Hoke and I know [Defensive Backs Coach] Brett Maxie," said the head coach. "I'm very pleased. Those guys are doing an awesome job. They're giving us a lot of looks.
"We did have an inside run period today, a lot of banging, some good one-on-one work. I'm anxious to see all the tape of that – we had some one-on-one runs and some one-on-one pass-blocking. We're starting to play real football. We have to piece it together."