The team may be 'going for two' this season but the Buccaneer defense specifically has decided it's aiming for one. As in, number one in overall defense.
"I think as a collective unit we can get a lot better," said defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, following his re-signing with the team last month. "We didn't finish as the number one defense that needs to be our particular goal in totality."
The good news is, that particular goal is only helped by the fact that the Bucs defense is not only returning all of its starters for 2021 but returning all but 0.2% of its regular season defensive snaps, which includes rotational players that the team also re-signed this offseason.
The 26 snaps (of a total 11,694) that the team will be without in 2021 came from safety Andrew Adams, who signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, and Chapelle Russell, one of the team's 2020 draft picks that ended is now with the Los Angeles Rams.
Other than that, the team returned outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Steve McLendon, Pat O'Connor and Jeremiah Ledbetter, linebackers Lavonte David and Kevin Minter, along with cornerback Ross Cockrell.
View photos of the 22 Super Bowl starters who will be returning for the 2021-2022 season.
The Bucs don't have a long way to go to get to that number one overall defense, either (no matter what Suh says). The team finished the 2020 season sixth in overall defense, according to total yards per game allowed. That average was 327.1 in the regular season and 350.0 in the postseason. It was aided by Tampa Bay's oppressive rushing defense, that posted league-best averages of just 80.6 yards per game 3.43 rushing yards per play. But that was nothing new. Since Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' arrival in 2019, the Bucs have the fewest rushing yards per game average of 77.2, helping the 27th-ranked defense that Bowles' inherited improve to 15th in his first year.
Perhaps what was more indicative of where the defense took its strides in 2020 was in points allowed. During the regular season, they let up a sixth-best 22.2 points per game, down from 28.1 the prior season, but they clamped down even harder in the playoffs, allowing just 19.5 points per game, which tied for the second-best mark in the league. Against all division winners and elite offenses, might I add.
There was no better example of that than in Super Bowl LV where the Bucs' defense stifled the number one offense in the league, led by one of the most dynamic playmakers to be seen in recent memory. Not only did the Buccaneers hold quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs without a touchdown in the biggest game of the season, they held Mahomes to a 52.3 passer rating – the lowest of his entire career. After being one of the best third-down teams throughout the season, Kansas City was reduced to just three third-down conversions on 13 attempts for a paltry 23.1% success rate. They converted just one fourth down in three attempts and Tampa Bay stopped all three of the Chiefs' trips inside the red zone.
The Bucs now essentially get to pick up right where they left off in that game thanks to the continuity that returning over 99% of your defensive snaps affords. They also added some defensive pieces in the 2021 NFL Draft, using their first pick at number 32 overall on outside linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington. The 6-foot-5, 259-pound defender opted out of the 2020 season but in 2019, was one of the most dominant pass rushers in the Pac-12. He finished that season with 8.0 sacks, 12.5 for loss and 41 total tackles in 13 games for the Huskies. A versatile player, Tryon had impressed the Buccaneers on tape with his effectiveness rushing from inside, as well as coming off the edge.
"He's got power, and power is something you can't teach," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "You either have it or you don't. A lot of edge rushers are speed guys; tackles in this league just knock those guys down. If you can't basically bull-rush and have power and turn it into speed, or speed to power, you're going to struggle. And Joe's showed that he has that ability. He's obviously going to be a huge contributor on special teams right away as he continues to improve that toolbox. But he has the main ingredients."
Tryon will join a defense that ranked fourth in sacks with 48.0 in the 2020 regular season. In the postseason, they added 10 more, 6.5 of which came from outside linebackers. In the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, all five of the Bucs' sacks on Aaron Rodgers came from either Jason Pierre-Paul or Shaq Barrett, in fact.
Yeah, that's the rotation Tryon is likely joining.
Tampa Bay also drafted linebackers K.J. Britt out of Auburn and Grant Stuard from Houston along with former BYU Cougar, cornerback C.J. Wilcox, to round out a defensive haul that can potentially play positional roles in addition to their value on special teams. Britt and Stuard should provide depth behind perhaps the best linebacker duo in the league in Lavonte David and Devin White. Wilcox will join a defensive secondary that will look to cut down on passing yards per game in 2021, which is perhaps the biggest area the Bucs can improve upon to make their goal of number one come to fruition. In 2020, the Bucs allowed 246.6 passing yards per game, which ranked them close to the bottom third league wide.
Improving in pass defense will get Tampa Bay's defense closer to the stats they want to crown them the number one defense in the NFL but as long as the Buccaneers keep suffocating opponents on the scoreboard, it should make for a successful season, regardless.
How the new players will ultimately fit into the scheme and mesh with a defense that has now largely been together for two years will likely have to wait until training camp to be revealed. It looks as though this will be another unconventional offseason due to the pandemic but with the starters remaining intact, the Bucs should be entering the 2021 season with the most continuity of anyone.
And if the Tampa Bay defense achieves their goal of one, the team getting two shouldn't be far behind.