Next man in the crosshairs: Saquon Barkley.
Twelve games into their first season with Bruce Arians at the helm and Todd Bowles running the defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one win and one loss and still some issues to be sorted out before it's clear exactly what the identity of the team is. One thing already seems obvious, though: The defense is on the rise under Bowles, having allowed just one offensive touchdown in four quarters.
With the rest of the league yet to play in Week Two, there isn't much point yet in NFL rankings. But some of the Bucs' own defensive numbers are particularly encouraging. Tampa Bay is allowing 299.5 yards per game (roughly 85 fewer than a year ago) and a third-down success rate of 29.6% (eight of 27). They've also stood up to all three fourth-down challenges they've faced, and opposing passers are completing just 54.5% of their throws so far. The Bucs have been vastly improved in the red zone, so far allowing zero touchdowns in six drives inside the 20 by their opponents.
Arians saw a similarly quick transition in Arizona when he and Bowles arrived as the same combination in 2013. The Cardinals improved from 12th to sixth in total defense over the previous year and from 28th to first against the run.
"I watched him do it in Arizona," said Arians. We knew we had talent, we knew we had speed here and he's just an amazing teacher. If you ever had the privilege of being on the headset, he's calling out the plays before they're run and telling guys, 'They're coming.' Sometimes, we still don't stop them, but he's telling them what's happening. He's very sharp."
Perhaps the most impressive thing the Bucs' defense has done so far is limiting the two players that seemed the most difficult to contain, San Francisco tight end George Kittle and Carolina Panther running back Christian McCaffrey. Both were undeniably the focal points of their respective team's offenses in 2018 and neither is commonly shut down for even a single game.
Kittle set an NFL record for tight ends last year with 1,377 receiving yards, and his 136 targets were more than double any other player on the team. The 49ers also didn't have a rusher who had more than 11 carriers per game. Meanwhile, McCaffrey had nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2018, led the Panthers in carries, targets and receptions and virtually never came off the field. Only once last year was he held to fewer than 56 yards from scrimmage, and he started out the current season with a 209-yard, two-touchdown day against the Rams.
Kittle did catch eight passes against the Buccaneers in the opener, but he was held to 54 yards and had a long of 19. McCaffrey rushed 16 times for just 37 yards and 2.3 yards per tote on Thursday night, and his six targets resulted in just two catches for 16 yards.
"Again, Todd does such a great job of targeting what we have to stop and how we're going to stop it, and the guys buy in," said Arians. "If that's your assignment, that's your assignment – let's go. Christian is such an unbelievable back, catching and rushing, I doubt he'll be held to that again. That was a hell of a job by our guys."
One would have to imagine, then, that the next player who would earn Bowles attention would be the New York Giants' explosive second-year back. Barkley probably shared the distinction of "offensive focal point" with tight end Evan Engram in New York's season opening loss to Dallas, but his rookie season makes it clear who the Giants offense runs through.
The second-overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Penn State, Barkley burst onto the scene as a rookie with 2,028 yards from scrimmage. He was the Giants' leading rusher, obviously, but more to the point he absorbed 261 of the 325 handoffs that went to running backs. Barkley was also second only to Odell Beckham in targets, 124 to 121, and Beckham is now a Cleveland Brown.
Barkley will not be an easy man to contain. He has now surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage in 14 of his 17 NFL games, and only once has he been held below 75. The Bucs smothering of McCaffrey doesn't mean they'll definitely keep Barkley in check, too. Still, early returns in the Todd Bowles defense indicate that he knows how to plan for an opponent's best man.