Let's go back to February 2020 really quick. Before tight end Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement and to the Buccaneers. Before Tom Brady shocked the NFL world by doing the same. Before a global pandemic tilted the actual world on its axis and shuttered life as we know it.
Back when more trivial things mattered, as far as Tampa Bay was concerned, the importance of re-signing key pieces to a defense that had made leaps and bounds towards the back half of 2019 was the paramount priority. Speculation swirling around the Bucs was all about keeping a front seven together that was the most dominant in the league against the run and if that would at all be a possibility. It was, and that was crucial back then.
It's even more crucial now.
"The kind of year we're having right now, I think it's very important to have chemistry and continuity," Bucs Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said on Thursday via Zoom conference. "Obviously, we have to continue to communicate and get back together on the field and not do everything by Zoom or virtually. To have everybody back from the same defense that ended last year is important from a communication and continuity standpoint."
The NFL offseason has been virtually non-existent. Or rather, virtually existent. OTAs in their traditional manner haven't been allowed due to concerns with COVID-19 and the league has prohibited any player from entering a team facility until recently. Even now, only players actively rehabilitating an injury are allowed within team headquarters. Everything else has moved online. Meetings with fellow position players and coaches are now conducted via video conference. There are no in-person discussions or lessons and no hands-on coaching on the field.
Pour one out for the teams with new coaching staffs and schemes to learn.
Thankfully, that's not the case for the Buccaneers, who are entering their second year under Head Coach Bruce Arians. The defense under Bowles remaining intact means there will be little to no need for building team chemistry as a means of playing effectively together. But that doesn't mean the Bucs are without their hurdles this offseason.
The front seven may feature its share of veterans in guys like linebacker Lavonte David, the longest-tenured Buc, or 11-year veteran Ndamukong Suh. But the back end, a unit that made the biggest improvement over the course of last season, is all young. The trio of 2019 draft picks in Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards will be entering just their second season. Cornerback Carlton Davis, the 'vet' of the cornerback group, will be in his third. With a new coach last year, the first half of the season was spent getting acclimated and understanding their roles. It showed. But it visibly improved as the season wore on. In weeks one through eight, the Bucs' defense recorded 33 passes defensed – ranking 15th in the league. They finished the year with 96 – the most in the league. The first half of the season, the Bucs were letting up an average of 285.3 yards per game through the air. That number improved in the back half of the season to 241.1 following a wakeup call in Seattle. They went from ranking 30th in passing yards allowed from weeks one through nine to ranking 20th in weeks 10 through 17. Seven of their 12 interceptions on the season came in that span, too.
Guys like Murphy-Bunting have attributed it to a further understanding of the scheme and what the defense is trying to accomplish. But it doesn't stop there for Bowles. He needs them to take the next step this season.
"Mentally, they're still puppies [though] they played what we called last year and played it well," said Bowles of his young players. "They understand what we're doing on defense. But this year, they have to graduate mentally to understand what the offenses are trying to do to them and get a better grasp of the game that way."
That even spills over to now second-year linebacker Devin White, who was marred by injury to start his first pro season last year. During a Zoom call last week, White said he wanted the defense to be able to put the team on their backs.
"Everybody knows we have that chemistry already locked in and we're running the same kinds of plays that we basically mastered at the end of last year," White said. "Now, we can build off what we did last year and keep striving."
In order to keep striving as a player, Bowles recommends White continue to get a better grasp on the system going into the season in order to really take command of the defense like White seems poised to do. He finished the season with back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors, clearly taking his positioning within Tampa Bay's dominant front seven seriously.
And though those players remained largely the same, Bowles warns the replication of their second-half success isn't guaranteed heading into a brand-new season.
"You start over every year," he said. "I know we ended up pretty good and played a few good games ending out the season, but every year is a new year. You can't rely on the past. But the fact that we've got the same guys back, there's some continuity and the fact that they're starting to get it mentally with each other, as well as the opposition, is encouraging. But again, we have to get everybody in and start that over again."