The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up 412 yards to Philadelphia in last Sunday's win over the defending champions, marking the second time in as many games that they've surrendered in excess of 400 yards. However, after a 48-40 shootout in New Orleans, the Buccaneers cut their points allowed nearly in half in downing the Eagles, 27-21. That's a significant improvement and far more important than the final yardage totals in an increasingly offensive league.
The biggest difference between those two defensive performances came up front. The Buccaneers only sacked the Saints' Drew Brees once and otherwise were credited with just five quarterback hits. The Eagles' Nick Foles had it tougher, absorbing three sacks and a dozen quarterback hits, while frequently being forced to make plays on the run.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Kwon Alexander accounted for the three sacks of Foles, while seven different Buc defenders combined for those 12 quarterback hits. Pierre-Paul had four hits on Foles as he was clearly more comfortable in his second Buccaneer game, according to Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith.
In fact, all of Tampa Bay's defensive linemen – including six who new to the team this year – are growing more comfortable playing together and are helping each other get to the passer.
"I think the biggest progress that we made as a defensive football team was that we were a lot better in our pass rush and putting the pressure on the quarterback," said Smith. "We got to him three times and we hit him about a dozen times. That was probably the biggest thing. It was a lot of individual effort, but it was also a group of guys that were working together in terms of knowing what each other was doing and being assist-men for each other."
This should only get better as the Buccaneers start to get back some of the defensive line depth they had carefully cultivated during the offseason. Rookie first-rounder Vita Vea hasn't played yet due to a calf injury and free agent signee Mitch Unrein is on injured reserve for at least the first eight games. The Bucs' defensive tackle rotation may be even thinner this week if Beau Allen's foot injury keeps him out (more injury updates below). Pierre-Paul missed time in the opener and hasn't practiced much the past two weeks, though he played 67 snaps against the Eagles and had one of the Bucs' three sacks.
All of this has kept the Buccaneers from handling their defensive line the way they planned after adding Pierre-Paul, Allen, Unrein, Vea and Vinny Curry in the offseason (and Carl Nassib off the waiver wire in Week One). The coaching staff envisioned a deep rotation that would get more out of each talented pass rusher by keeping the snap count lower for each one.
"Our plan going into the season was to rotate, but that plan's sort of gone out the window – again of those guys that played over 70 plays [against Philadelphia] I think three of them were on the defensive line. JPP didn't practice a whole lot last week. That's where an experienced guy knows what it takes. Gerald's another guy we didn't want that many snaps for. Vinny Curry's another guy. When Beau Allen got injured during the game and you've only got a certain number of guys up – that's never going to change. With 46, your numbers by position are never going to change especially at d-line [or] O-line that much. That something that we would like to have the depth to rotate and it just depends when we can get guys back hopefully."
Still, even without being able to go as deep in the early part of this season, the Buccaneers are starting to see the production they want up front because that unit is rapidly building some useful cohesion.
"Sometimes everybody thinks pass-rushing is just one player," said Smith. "It's a unit working together up there, based on how people are trying to protect things and how we're trying to attack the protection. You've got to have confidence in each other. I think as a unit we did a great job. Jason looked a lot more comfortable playing with those guys that he lined up with."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
WELCOME RETURNS: Vea took a step towards his eventual NFL debut on Thursday when he practiced for the first time since July 28. The calf injury he suffered on the first day of padded practices had kept him sidelined since, though he has used his recovery time to slim down by about 15 pounds.
Vea was only a limited participant in practice, however, so his status for Monday's game is not yet clear. With Allen now a question mark – he didn't practice Thursday after suffering his injury in the Philadelphia game – the Buccaneers would obviously benefit from some added defensive tackle depth, but it's quite clear that the team is not going to rush Vea back. When he does return, he'll become a very important part of that aforementioned rotation.
"Vita's a big man," said Smith. "He's going to demand four hands on him. If you try to put two hands on him he's going to be a guy that's going to be able to get penetration into the offensive backfield. We're just waiting for the word where he can get out and help us."
Cornerback Brent Grimes has also missed the first two regular-season games after suffering a groin injury in practice in Week One. When he came back to practice on Thursday it was as a full participant. The Buccaneers didn't make a net gain at the cornerback position, in terms of available bodies, because Marcus Williams sat out practice with a hamstring ailment. That said, Grimes has been a very productive starter for the Buccaneers the past two years while Williams was only recently added to the roster.
"He's a very good defensive back that is going to make us a better defense, so we love having Brent out there," said Smith. "He knows and understands the game and he's going to help the other guys as well because he's a guy that really studies and understands splits and how people are trying to attack us. Defending [Ben] Roethlisberger and the offensive attack that they have – it's going to be a big challenge."
While Vea and Grimes are moving in the right direction, the Buccaneers' overall injury report has grown more – shall we say – robust in Week Three. It is now 10 players along and includes the starting quarterback and both starting offensive tackles, all with knee issues. Ryan Fitzpatrick was a full participant in practice despite popping up on the injury report, while tackles Demar Dotson and Donovan Smith were both limited.
Three other Buccaneers were limited as well: Pierre-Paul (knee), safety Chris Conte (knee) and wide receiver Chris Godwin (toe).
WAITING FOR THEIR CHANCES: Wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cam Brate were the Buccaneers' second and fourth-leading pass-catchers last season, hauling in a combined 109 passes for 1,222 yards and seven touchdowns. Humphries only caught 10 fewer passes than team-leader Mike Evans and Brate tied for the team lead with six touchdowns. All of this came in service of a passing attack that rang up nearly 4,400 net yards and ranked fourth in the NFL.
Through the first two weeks of the 2018 season, Humphries and Brate have combined for four catches and 35 yards, all by Humphries, the team's primary slot receiver. Humphries does have seven targets, and he had a 65-yard catch-and-run erased by a penalty in New Orleans, but Brate has been targeted only twice so far.
At the same time, Tampa Bay's passing attack has been even better than last year. Fitzpatrick has collected two NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards already, racking up 819 passing yards while spreading it around to such explosive playmakers as Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. The Bucs lead the NFL in net passing yards and have scored 75 points, most of it through a non-stop aerial assault.
All of which is to say, Brate and Humphries have every reason to be thrilled to be part of a 2-0 team with a productive offense while still wondering when their time will come, even if they never say so. Koetter knows that's simple human nature, and he also knows it's important for him to assure Brate and Humphries that they are still very important parts of the offense.
"I look at that as something I'm really conscious of – that's part of my job," said Koetter. "Everybody wants to win, but everybody also wants to win and get their touches. Don't kid yourself. I'm always trying to be on the lookout for that as far as guys that aren't playing as big a role right now for one reason or another.
As Koetter has noted in the past, the only way you can guarantee one of your skill-position players getting a touch is to hand it to him. On any given play, Fitzpatrick has up to five options open to him as to where to distribute the ball. Chances are, the ball is going to start finding its way to Brate and Humphries a bit more in the near future.
"Sometimes it's just nothing more than luck," said Koetter. "Sometimes the ball is supposed to go one place and it goes another because it goes based on where the defense says it should go. I'm sure those two guys are a little disappointed in the number of times they've been targeted, but that's unfortunate and the bottom line is we've got to do whatever it takes to win. We also know that's it a long season and usually that has a way of working itself out."