Tampa Bay held Oakland to 22 rushing yards on 11 carries Sunday at O.co Stadium, a performance that shot the Buccaneers' run defense back up to #1 in the NFL. There were certainly some contributing factors to that miniscule yardage total that weren't directly the result of good scheming and great tackling – the Raiders spent the entire second half playing catch-up, for one thing, and lost running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson to injuries in the process.
Still, this was no fluke performance. In fact, it wasn't even the best outing by the Bucs' run defense in 2012. That would be the season opener, when the Carolina Panthers, one of the NFL's best rushing teams in 2011, managed just 10 yards on 13 carries. Coupled with the last weekend's game, that means two of the six lowest single-game rushing yardage totals ever allowed by the Buccaneers occurred during the first half of the 2012 campaign.
As a result, the Buccaneers have a shot at finishing first in the NFL in rushing defense for the first time in the franchise's 37 year history; the previous best was #2 in 1988. That's impressive, but this is remarkable: Last year Tampa Bay was dead last against the run.
The Bucs have shaved an unbelievable 78.8 yards per game off their rushing defense from 2011 to 2012 – albeit through just half a season so far – and are now allowing just 73.1 per outing. Tampa Bay also leads the league in yards allowed per carry, at 3.4. Believe it or not, that's not even quite as good as the team hopes to be.
"It's not even necessarily tackles for loss," said McCoy of the Buccaneers' main objective in run defense. "It's having a run average of three yards or less. The tackles for loss help you be able to open up the playbook on second down, and definitely third down. Just having a run average of three yards or less, that's really the goal. That helps you be able to expand and start dictating what they have to run."
McCoy was likely referring to the team's goal in each game, but getting down to 3.0 yards allowed per carry for the entire season won't be easy. Only eight team defenses have finished at that mark or better since the 1970 merger, and none since the 2007 Baltimore Ravens. However, the Bucs can realistically hope to maintain their top spot in the rush defense rankings, and that would be a stunning feat as well. Since the merger, no team has ever finished last in the league in that category one season and first the next.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster, who was a rookie starter on that 2011 defense and is right back in the same spot for the new-and-improved version in 2012, says the reasons for the turnaround are many.
"Gerald's healthy, Roy [Miller] is playing amazing football, Mike Bennett's up there causing havoc," said Foster. "I feel like everybody has definitely stepped their games up. We've got a great scheme, Coach [Bill] Sheridan has a great scheme, and we've got a lot of guys flying around making plays that are really hungry, trying to find a role and help the team win in any way possible. I feel like it's just an accumulation of everything."
McCoy and Miller have indeed been the unsung heroes in the Bucs' run defense, and even though they are returning players, neither one is in the same situation as a year ago. McCoy was lost after just six games to an arm injury – and was playing wonderfully before that – and Miller was only an occasional starter. Now McCoy is back to wreaking havoc and Miller has found a new lease on his career at the "tilt-nose" position he's inherited in Sheridan and Head Coach Greg Schiano's new defense.
And, as much as that scheme has been at the center of the team's turnaround, a new attitude at One Buc Place has been equally important.
"There's more than one key but it's everyone doing their jobs, believing in the defense, believing in the calls and getting to the football," said linebacker Quincy Black.
The Bucs' pass defense is uncharacteristically at the bottom of the league rankings, and in the end the entire defense has to be judged as a whole. Schiano concedes that the Bucs' coaching staff is disappointed that they haven't tightened up the pass defense yet, but at the same time he says he's not going to apologize for being at the top of the rush defense list.
"The guys are doing a heck of a job playing the run," he said. "Our number-one goal in our defensive room is stop the run. I think when you make teams one dimensional it gives you a chance."