The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played two preseason games at Raymond James Stadium in the span of eight days. In the first one, the visiting Tennessee Titans, a non-playoff team in 2011 with a rookie starting at quarterback, left with a lopsided 30-7 victory. In the second one, the visiting New England Patriots, Super Bowl runners-up last year with a first-ballot Hall of Famer at quarterback, left with a 30-28 defeat.
Obviously, that second result looked considerably better for the Buccaneers. However, there are layers upon layers of nuances in the preseason, and it's dangerous to read too much into any final score. One has to look a little deeper into the game film and/or the boxscore to find notes of lasting significance. Here's one: Tampa Bay's starting defense looked quite promising in both games.
It's not quite as cut-and-dried as the same 11 players on the field for every snap, but the Bucs' starting defense essentially played five possessions against Tennessee and seven against New England. The Titans were forced into a three-and-out on four of those five possessions; the Patriots suffered the same fate on five of seven drives (including one four-and-out where they went for it on fourth down).
"The first defense last week I thought played pretty solid," said Head Coach Greg Schiano, who along with Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan is working to install a new, more attacking scheme in Tampa. "Then they were able to come out last night and again play solid."
The Buccaneers sacked Patriots QB Tom Brady twice on Friday night, hurried him frequently, picked him off once and got a hand on four passes overall. Ronde Barber, who is now playing safety after 15 years at cornerback and who tipped the pass that was intercepted by fellow safety Mark Barron, has seen a lot of good defense in his time in Tampa. He saw something familiar on Friday night.
"It [was] shades of years past, when a quarterback under duress makes our jobs in the backfield a little bit easier," he said. "Like I said, we're learning a whole new deal now. Once you get comfortable with it, you can go start playing fast, and we certainly have the athletes to do that, who can make plays and do their job better than anybody else, and make us a good defense."
Barron took that interception and raced 22 yards up the sideline for his first NFL touchdown, albeit a preseason one. The seventh-overall pick in last April's draft, he saw only limited playing time in the first two weeks due to a toe injury but was fully in the mix on Friday against the Patriots. Barron is most definitely one of those playmaking "athletes" of which Barber speaks.
"This is a glimpse of what we want to be," said the rookie. "We came out and everybody did their job tonight, everybody ran to the ball and finished on plays. We got good results from that and that's what happens when we do those things."
Defensive end Michael Bennett is certainly playing fast in the Bucs' new defense. He has responded to the system quickly and has made several stops behind the line of scrimmage already. One of those was a crushing sack on Brady that forced a fumble in the first quarter on Friday.
"I think last week we had five three-and-outs in the first quarter," said Bennett. "This week [the Tampa Bay offense] played longer, and you got to see the unit working more together. This just feels good to go out there and actually just keep going and going."