The Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL in rushing defense in 2019, allowing just 73.8 ground yards per game. That was significantly better than the rest of the pack; the New York Jets were second, allowing 86.9 yards per game and the gap between first and second was larger than the gap between second and eighth.
Could the Buccaneers possibly improve on that performance in 2020? On one hand, the team managed to retain nearly the entire cast of its defensive front despite the pull of free agency. On the other hand, that 73.8-yard average is a very high bar…or perhaps low bar, in this case. It won't be easy to limbo underneath it. Not only was that per-game average the lowest the Buccaneers have ever recorded in their 44-season history, but it was also the lowest by any NFL team since Detroit in 2014. Since the turn of the millennium, there have only been eight teams that allowed fewer than 1,200 rushing yards in a season.
That won't stop the Buccaneers from trying.
"Definitely," said DL William Gholston, when asked if the goal for 2020 was to be even better. "Every year the defense goes in trying to be the best in every single category. I don't think anything's going to change. I know it's going to be a lot harder because now we've got a target on our back and we've got to produce in-and-out, every single day."
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Indeed, the Bucs' run defense will be a collectively-marked man in 2020, with opposing running backs sure to be eager for the challenge after watching tape from 2019. Only one running back cracked 100 yards against Tampa Bay last year, as Seattle's Chris Carson used one 59-yard breakaway plus an extra period of play to get to 105. No other back had more than 75 rushing yards against the Bucs. The Buccaneers famously bottled up Carolina's Christian McCaffrey twice, holding him to 100 total yards from scrimmage in those two games. McCaffrey averaged 163.7 yards from scrimmage in his other 14 outings.
"We just have to remember: Every year is a new year," said Defensive Line Coach Kacey Rodgers. "Last year is gone and we're starting all over from fundamentals. It's a different year – last year you had OTAs, you had a mini camp, you had four preseason games to work out the kinks. We don't have that this year – we've got a new normal right now. We're starting over. Just forget last year – we've got to start all over."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
High-profile veteran Ndamukong Suh and rising young star Vita Vea got a lot of credit for that solid wall up front, and deservedly so. But Will Gholston filled out the three-man front in the base defense and quietly had an outstanding year in a defense that was well-suited for his size and skills. All three of those players are back to form the Bucs' first line of defense against ballcarriers.
"As we looked at the tape last year, the guy that did a tremendous job that you really never mention was Will Gholston," said Rodgers. "Because Suh and Vita – Suh played the three-technique and Vita played on the nose – but on the tight end side, all the double-teams and power-side runs, that was Will Gholston. He did a tremendous job. He was somewhat overshadowed."
Gholston's outstanding work in Todd Bowles' defense didn't come as a surprise to those who had a good idea of what Bowles was doing. Though the Buccaneers' officially switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense upon the new coordinator's arrival last year, in reality they used a variety of fronts and a scheme that, for Gholston, was very similar to what he played in Greg Schiano's defense in 2012 and 2013. Bowles' scheme reinvigorated Gholston's career – he's actually the second longest-tenured Buc now behind Lavonte David – and sent him into the 2020 offseason determined to get even better.
"Actually, I did work on some stuff specifically," said Gholston. "I took everything out of my exit meeting and I tried to implement it into my workouts. I tried to put on enough weight to stay consistently above 300 pounds. I tried to work on my lateral movement. I tried to work on my pass rush. That's really what I focused on is making my body right, my pass rush and my lateral movement."
The only player lost from the Bucs' group of down lineman was veteran reserve Beau Allen, who is now a Patriot. Meanwhile, the team added sixth-round rookie Khalil Davis and, more recently, well-heeled veteran Kyle Love. In addition, the returning Rakeem Nunez-Roches, another defender the Buccaneers were able to re-sign this spring, has bulked up in order to share some of the load at the nose with Vea.
With the personnel at least as strong as last year, if not stronger, and the players having a greater understanding of Bowles' plans, there's every reason to believe the Bucs will be one of the best run-stopping teams in the league, even if they can't quite outdo what they did in 2019. But they'll have to put in the work.
"I think our strength will continue to be stopping the run, but we have to prove that each and every play," said Suh. That starts up front with myself, Vita Will Gholston, as well as the linebackers, Lavonte [David] and Devin [White]. We have to set the tempo each and every day in practice and have that translate into particular games."