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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs' Red Zone Defense Creating Winning Margins

Tampa Bay's defense has recorded the second-best touchdown percentage on drives that penetrate its own 20-yard line, and that's a significant factor in the team's 3-1 start

NEW ORLEANS, LA - October 01, 2023 - Outside Linebacker Shaquil Barrett #7 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. The Bucs won the game, 26-9. Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NEW ORLEANS, LA - October 01, 2023 - Outside Linebacker Shaquil Barrett #7 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. The Bucs won the game, 26-9. Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are shelving the red and pewter for a week in order to bring back their iconic 'Creamsicle' uniforms, but there's one bit of crimson they need to keep squarely in their sights. That would be the red zone, which is where the Buccaneers have created the margins that have led to a 3-1 start to the season.

On offense, the Bucs have been fairly average when getting into the red zone, tying for 20th in the league with a touchdown percentage of exactly 50.0%. But that unit shook off a slow start to have its best red zone performance in Week Four, three touchdowns and a field goal on four tries. (The ball was snapped from the 21, just outside the red zone, on the interception that Baker Mayfield threw by the goal line, so it wasn't technically a red zone trip but you could be justified in dinging the Bucs' numbers a bit for that one.)

The aforementioned winning margins have come when the opposing team has gotten inside the Bucs' 20-yard line. By consistently forcing field goals, and an occasional takeaway or turnover on downs, Tampa Bay has turned most potential sevens into three, leading to the second-best red zone defensive numbers in the NFL so far. Only 27.3% of the red zone incursions against Tampa Bay's defense have resulted in touchdowns, which is just a notch below the Baltimore Ravens' mark of 25.0%.

Larry Foote, the Bucs' pass game coordinator/inside linebackers coach – essentially the co-defensive coordinator with Kacy Rodgers – says the emphasis on red zone sturdiness comes from the top. Head Coach Todd Bowles has made it clear to his team that it is there were games are decided.

"You win or lose off of that," said Foote. "If you hold them to three points and save four points on the scoreboard, at the end of the day, late in the fourth quarter, you're going to be in games because of that. Each time you're down there, it's the difference [between] winning and losing. Those guys are buying in and communicating, because they go fast. Up front [is] doing a good job because you've got to play a little coverage down there sometimes. So far, we're rock solid."

The Bucs rode into their Week Five bye with a rousing 26-9 win over the Saints in New Orleans, a game in which the Saints' offense failed to find the end zone even once. The home team appeared to grab the early momentum with a game-opening drive that reached the Bucs' 19-yard line fairly quickly. But a seven-yard tackle-for-loss by rookie Yaya Diaby on Alvin Kamara short-circuited that possession and the Saints settled for three. That would prove to be their only lead of the day. In the third quarter, while down 11, the Saints once again got into the Bucs' red zone but this time a Vita Vea sack was the key to forcing another field goal. That only trimmed Tampa Bay's lead to eight points, and the Saints never got any closer than that.

It is still early in the season, of course, but so far the Bucs' defense has shown vast improvement in the red zone over last year. Tampa Bay finished 24th in red zone touchdown percentage allowed in 2022, at 58.3%.

"When we highlighted goals and put stuff on the board that we needed to get better at, that was one of the main emphases – making people kick three or even getting takeaways," said linebacker Devin White. "We pride ourselves in not letting them get 'in the paint,' as we call it. The men in the building, they bought in. Everybody bought in. We're playing hard, we're playing fast and physical, and man we're doing what we're supposed to be doing on the defensive side of the ball."

The Bucs' pass defense has been particularly oppressive in the red zone. It has allowed a league-low 33.3% completion rate in that area of the field and has intercepted as many passes (1) as touchdown passes allowed. Opponents are averaging an anemic 1.20 yards per pass attempt down there and opposing passers have combined to record a 36.8 passer rating. Those are both NFL bests, as well.

"Keys, and guys are buying in," said Foote as to why the pass defense has worked so well inside the 20. "Every team plays pretty much the same stuff down there – it's just a matter of our guys are executing. They're talking at a high level. Bowles is putting them in good defenses, but at the end of the day, those guys are making plays. When you get down there, you've only got a small window in there and you've got to make plays. Those guys are doing a good job."

A huge test to that defense is waiting just over the horizon. The Detroit Lions, who will share the field for Creamsicle Day at Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, rank fourth in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone on offense. Jared Goff's passer rating in the red zone is 116.9, in part due to four touchdowns thrown against no interceptions. Only 10 of Detroit's 57 offensive possessions through five games have resulted in a three-and-out, so the Buccaneers may face multiple occasions of the Lions creating scoring threats. The key may once again turn potential sevens into threes.

"I think that started last year, they put the league on notice," said Foote of the Lions' offensive surge. "That offense is high powered. They can run it, they can throw it. We talked about Goff earlier – the line is good, it's going to be a big challenge for us. Just studying those guys, they can run it and throw it. The guys have got to buy in and you've got to win your one-on-one matchups. In order to beat a good offense like that, your players have got to outplay theirs. Our guys are up for the challenge."

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