According to safety Jordan Whitehead, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneer defenders to play with a higher level of energy in Week 16 at Carolina. And then Bowles gave those men a game plan that let them release that energy in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
Basically, Bowles turned up the heat on Panthers quarterbacks Cam Newton and Sam Darnold, and never turned it back down. The Buccaneers blitzed on every down and in every quarter, and it worked over and over again, which is how the defense held Carolina to just a pair of field goals in a 32-6 Bucs win that clinched the 2021 NFC South title.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers blitzed on 48.1% of the Panthers dropbacks, their third-highest blitz rate in any game this season. That produced seven sacks and 20 pressures; the first total was a single-game high for Tampa Bay this season and the second was also their fourth-highest rate of the year.
Not only did the Bucs get Newton and Darnold on the ground, but they often forced errant throws even when they were unable to get sacks. NGS calculated the Panthers' 45 throws as having an expected completion rate of 62.1% but the two Carolina passers actually completed just 48.9% of them. That difference of -13.2% between expected and actual completion rate was the best mark of the year for Tampa Bay's defense; it hadn't produced a difference of more than -10% in any of its previous 14 outings.
Of course, defensive coaches will occasionally point out that what looks like a blitz is just a more creative four-man rush, but in the case of NGS statistics, they are simply counting how many defenders head into the backfield after the quarterback on each play. Any play with more than four players coming after the QB is put into the blitz category.
And, again, Bowles was happy to dial up this strategy in virtually any situation. In fact, the Buccaneers' blitz rate was nearly identical from down to down, though it worked particularly well on third down.
The Panthers struggled to throw in all situations, with just 184 passing yards until the final two-minute drive against Tampa Bay's second and third-string defenders. But it was worse against the blitz, with a passer rating of 51.7 in those situations as compared to 61.7 against no blitz. This was particularly true when the Bucs brought extra defenders on first down. They did so nine times on 18 dropbacks, resulting in two completions in seven attempts for 19 yards, plus one sack. That's a passer rating off 39.6, as compared to 80.8 when the Bucs did not blitz on first down.
The Buccaneers had 13 different players put pressure on the quarterback at least once, for a total of 32 pressures (multiple players can be credited with pressures on the same play). Unsurprisingly, given that he led the way with a career-high 2.5 sacks, Will Gholston also had the most pressures, with six. Vita Vea had five, while Anthony Nelson, Devin White and Shaq Barrett notched three each.
Gholston also had the Bucs' best pressure percentage, getting one on 30.0% of his pass rushes. Vea was next at 20.8% and Barrett finished at 18.8% before his second quarter knee injury. Barrett seemed to be primed for a big day had he not left the game; his average get-off at the snap was tagged at 0.71 seconds, easily the best of any Buccaneer defender on this day and also Barrett's best mark this season. Anthony Nelson did well in this regard, too, with an average get-off of 0.91 seconds.
It was definitely a full-team effort as Tampa Bay's defense held consecutive opponents without a touchdown for just the third time in team history. But it started with the man in charge of the defense, who decided that Sunday was a good day to let his dogs hunt the quarterback.