The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew 13 penalties in their season-opening loss to the Jets on Sunday, an occurrence they are vowing not to repeat. Three of those 13 were for unnecessary roughness, including two drawn in the secondary by the Bucs' rugged safety duo, Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. Those flags need to be eliminated like the rest of them, but the hard-hitting mindset that led to them is not going anywhere.
The Bucs were one-point shy on the bottom line on Sunday, and thus Week One – "Season One," as Head Coach Greg Schiano likes to call it – can't be considered a success. But the defense allowed only one touchdown, on a 31-yard drive following a turnover, and surrendered just 16 points (two others came on a safety when the offense was on the field). It racked up five sacks and several more hits on the quarterback, gave up no play longer than 26 yards and leveled many a hard hit on backs and receivers.
That's the blueprint, and it's a good tone-setter for the rest of the season, despite the loss.
"I want us flying around the way we flew around [Sunday], because that was as hard a hitting Buc defense as has been here in a long time," said Schiano. "So, we're going to keep doing it, we're just going to try to do it within the framework."
Schiano's "within the framework" reference is to the hits that drew penalties for Goldson and Barron. Goldson hit tight end Jeff Cumberland on a throw deep down the middle of the field just as Cumberland was hauling in the ball, causing a deflection that was nearly intercepted by Barron. Just a few minutes later, Barron was one of three players who converged on wide receiver Jeremy Kerley on a short pass over the middle, creating a collision that popped Kerley's helmet off. In both cases, the hits were deemed illegal, but it's fair to say that the Buccaneer defenders were trying to play within the system.
Schiano knows that system is a tighter these days, so he wants to see the same aggression applied in a way that won't draw fouls.
"The physical penalties, those, we better be careful," he said. "We've got to play on the edge, that's the way we play. We've got to be smart about it. The strike zone is decreasing in the National Football League, and we've got to make sure we stay within the rules. That doesn't mean you can't be as physical, but we have to try to be better that way. Now, some are very obvious, and you say, 'That's going to be a penalty 10 out of 10 times.' Others you look at and you say, 'I'm not so sure,' but it doesn't matter; as I tell our team and I tell our coaches and I tell myself, if the flag is thrown, it's a penalty. It doesn't matter what we think, because the effect on the team and on the result is going to be what it is."
"We're going to try to aim for the strike zone, which is what we talk about all the time. We have videos that we show, and we're just going to try to be better at it."
The Buccaneers came out of the 2012 season with the NFL's best run defense and some rising stars in Barron, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David. The pass defense was a problem, however, and it was addressed very aggressively with the acquisitions of Goldson, Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and a concerted effort to ramp up the pass rush. Sunday's opener wasn't perfect – rookie Geno Smith did throw for 256 gross passing yards – but there were definitely signs that the Bucs' 2013 defense is a more advanced version of what the team fielded last fall.
"This defense is definitely a little different [than last year]," said cornerback Leonard Johnson, who had a game-high nine tackles. "We're just physical, all across the board. We've got guys that are willing to go in and hit people. We've made a lot of adjustments on the back end and up front, drafting guys and bringing guys in, free agents. All those guys are contributing to our team, and that's exactly what it's going to take to get this program on track."
Tampa Bay's offense undeniably struggled in the opener, with the exception of a very prolific connection between quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, but there was enough evidence from last year and enough returning pieces to believe it can produce at a high level in 2012. If the Bucs can take a small step forward on offense from their 2012 base and the defense has as much hard-hitting potential as was on display Sunday, the rest of the season may include a lot more Ws than Ls.
"I liked [the defense]," said guard Davin Joseph. "I liked it a lot. I thought they played at a high level. I felt that on offense we didn't really run enough plays, we didn't really give them enough rest. But they played that-hard hitting bend-but-don't-break defense that's going to win us a championship."