The Bucs are hoping for more sacks, tackles-for-losses and turnovers out of their defensive line
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense, which had sputtered for significant portions of the team's first three games, finally got what it needed in New Orleans: Big plays.
If one defines them as runs of 10 or more yards and completions of 20 or more yards, than the Bucs had three more "big plays" on offense against the Saints (11) than they had posted in their first three games combined (8). The result: A season-high 406 yards of total offense and much more consistent movement of the ball for 60 minutes.
Now it's the defense's turn.
Of all the developments that have contributed to the Bucs' 0-4 start to 2006 after their 11-5 finish in 2005, the numbers given up by Tampa Bay's proud defense are probably the most surprising. Looking to add a 10th year to their historic streak of seasons in the top 10 of the NFL's defensive rankings, the Bucs instead find themselves in the 20th spot a month into their campaign. There is still plenty of time for that ranking to rise, but for the Bucs to return to the type of defense to which they're accustomed, they're going to have to produce more big plays on that side of the ball.
That was a major point of emphasis for Head Coach Jon Gruden on Monday morning, less than 24 hours after a narrow loss at the Superdome in which the Bucs failed to register a single takeaway.
"We're not creating turnovers," said Gruden, and indeed the Bucs' five takeaways so far are tied for the third fewest in the NFL. "We're not making the impact plays, the TFLs, the tackles for losses. We're not getting the opposing offense behind the down-and-distance. We're not getting them behind in the down-and-distance. We're not making the splash impact plays. I don't know how long it's been since we've intercepted a ball; I don't know that we did in the preseason either."
The Bucs, in fact, have one interception, turned in by Derrick Brooks in Atlanta. Even that had disappointing overtones in that Brooks' apparent return of the pick for a touchdown was erased by a penalty which is hard to see on the game tape. Only Denver (zero interceptions) and Houston and Detroit (one each) have had as much trouble getting their hands on opposing team's passes.
There are, to be sure, many factors contributing to the Bucs' defense struggles – Gruden made that point almost verbatim on Monday, in fact – but it has been particularly surprising to see a defense with a well-deserved big-play reputation struggle to provide its offense with good field position. The Bucs have all of three drives that have started in opposing territory this season, and they've scored touchdowns on two of them. By contrast, their opponents have started seven drives in Buc territory (and also scored on one interception return) and netted three touchdowns and three field goals.
"It's a combination of things, and that more than anything is very disappointing right now, our inability to get turnovers and to disrupt the offense, clearly disrupt them and put them behind in the down-and-distance where now you have dealer's choice in the playbook," said Gruden. We've been inconsistent getting any kind of turnovers other than a spurt there against Carolina."
That spurt was a second-half stretch in which the Bucs forced and recovered three fumbles, leading to the three scores that rallied them from a 17-0 deficit to a brief 24-23 lead. Against the Saints, the Bucs were actually ahead in the early-going, and again in the fourth quarter, and just one well-timed takeaway might have sealed the victory. Last year, the Bucs' defense had forced 10 turnovers through the first four games, including six interceptions, and had scored 30 points off those takeaways. And, yes, those Buccaneers started out 4-0.
Of course, it's also fair to say that the creation of turnovers requires at least some measure of good fortune. A cornerback, for instance, can play a flawless game and never be in position for an interception. However, there are certain conditions that drive up the likelihood of turnovers, and the most obvious one is pressure on the quarterback.
That's another area in which the Bucs have traditionally thrived on defense, but one that hasn't been up to its usual standards this year. The Bucs have seven sacks through four games, including none at New Orleans, and the starting defensive line has produced just two QB takedowns (one each for ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires).
The Bucs will likely have to get a more consistent push up front in order to make the turnover numbers come around.
"I would tell the defensive line exactly what they need to hear," said Gruden. "For us to come out of the ashes here, they're going to have to dominate. Until they do, we're going to struggle because we need those four guys, whoever's in there at that time, to deliver. The push up the middle hasn't been close to what I want, to what I expect in the third down, in the nickel passing situations. And I think our players would agree with that.
"It just hasn't been at a level that we want or we tolerate around here."