Through the first three games of the 2022 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked first in scoring defense, having allowed an average of 9.0 points per game. Now seven weeks in, and mired in a 1-4 stretch, the Buccaneers still rank fifth in scoring defense but the average has nearly doubled, at 17.7 points per game. Most notably, the team's early-season dominance in the second half of games has been flipped on its head.
Through that 2-1 start to the season, the Buccaneers allowed just one touchdown and no field goals after halftime. The high-powered Kansas City Chiefs came to town in Week Four and scored fairly easily in all four quarters. In the three games that followed, though, it was the second half that became the trouble spot for Tampa Bay's defense.
The Bucs pitched three quarters of a shutout against Atlanta but allowed two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter before hanging on to a 21-15 win. A defensive lapse in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh allowed a big play that led what would be the game-winning touchdown, and then the Steelers were able to convert multiple long third downs to deny Tom Brady one more chance at a comeback drive. On Sunday in Charlotte, the Buccaneers allowed 34 rushing yards in the first half but were gashed for 139 after the intermission.
Head Coach Todd Bowles noted after the game and again on Monday that there were a handful of busted assignments that led to critical big plays and turned an otherwise promising defensive effort into one that wasn't good enough. He called it a matter of staying focused.
"They have to play four quarters," said Bowles. "It's really a focus thing, and there are things that we've done every day all day. And I can't explain why at this time but the things that happened yesterday in the fourth quarter and the second half especially, the three busts we had that really cost us some things were inexcusable and are some things we put in Day One since we've been here. So it wasn't something that had to be taught or re-coached or re-taught. We've just got to focus and we've got to learn how to have a killer instinct and finish three quarters."
Despite persistent offensive struggles, the Buccaneers were still only trailing by a 7-0 score late in the fourth quarter, and the defense had forced a punt on six of the Panthers' first seven drives. But running back D'Onta Foreman broke through the defensive front for a 60-yard run, setting up Chuba Hubbard's 17-yard scoring dash on the next play. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, the Panthers essentially iced the game when tight end Tommy Tremble got behind the defense and caught a perfect P.J. Walker pass at the goal line for another score. Both of those big plays involved a defensive bust of some sort, according to Bowles.
Larry Foote, the Buccaneers' pass game coordinator/inside linebackers coach, sees how the Bucs' recent second-half struggles could be a learning experience for some of the team's younger defenders.
"It's just 60 minutes," said Foote. "We've got to finish, we've got to sustain, we've got to stay locked into the game and just focus each play. Young guys are learning on the ropes, each play, every play counts. I look at it, it's always four to five plays that really dictate the outcome of the game, and some of these young guys are learning that."
Bowles was the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator for three seasons before settling into the head coach's office, and his defensive squads have long been known for stifling the run and creating turnovers. The run defense is clearly not as strong as it had been the previous three seasons – and is sorely missing Akiem Hicks – but the recent turnover drought has been more surprising. The Buccaneers have not forced a single turnover in the last three games. It's hard to maintain a killer instinct when the defense is not producing any game-changing takeaways, like it did repeatedly in the fourth quarter of a Week Two win at New Orleans.
The Bucs only sacked Walker once and hit him three times on Sunday, but Bowles said the defense should be able to generate takeaways even when the pass rush is not getting home consistently.
"It doesn't start with lack of pressure," said Bowles. "It starts with punching the ball out, it starts with making plays on the ball down the field. Pressure helps it, but it has nothing to do with pressure – you've got to get turnovers regardless, whether we rush four, five, six or three. And we try to get turnovers, we practice it, we punch the ball out, we show clips of it. And they come in bunches so hopefully this will be the end of it and we can get some more."
Foote noted that the Bucs need to create the sorts of situations that make turnovers more likely.
"Up front, we've got to get them in third-and-long, when quarterbacks want to hold the ball and try to push it downfield, so we can get sacks and pick the ball off," he said. "We had a couple opportunities, not a lot, but we've got to get the ball out. We know in this league if you're creating turnovers the chance of you winning goes up."
On Sunday night, Bowles said that the Buccaneers needed to display more mental toughness, and that the coming days would indicate which players will step up when times are hard. For the defense, that involves creating a killer instinct that will keep the unit operating at a high level through the final whistle. The reality of the Buccaneers' recent slide should make it easier for the team to focus on what needs to be done.
"Adversity is here," said Foote, "so we've got to respond."