LB Derrick Brooks and the Bucs' defense are assured of a high ranking once again in 2005, but they still have a lot to prove
Barring a very unusual finish to the season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense will finish the 2005 season ranked among the NFL's top five for the fourth year in a row and for the seventh time in the past nine campaigns.
This year, the Bucs have ranked either first or second in the league every Monday since the second week of the season, and it would take a lot to disrupt that position significantly in the last three weeks. The Bucs are allowing 270.8 yards per game while the sixth-place team, Baltimore, is giving up 290.2 per week.
Tampa Bay would have to give up 374 yards per game over the last three weeks to fall to Baltimore's current average, and they've only surrendered that many yards twice all season. In fact, it seems much more likely that the Bucs would jump up to the top spot – Chicago's just ahead at 270.5 per game – than fall four places.
That's our helpful statistical analysis. Now, as an added service, please allow us to translate those first three paragraphs into the way they might sound inside the head of Bucs' coach Jon Gruden.
"Blah blah blah, meaningless stat, blah blah blah, pointless numbers, blah blah blah, oh boy, more stats…"
You get the point. Gruden is not an enormous fan of statistics, to put it gently. He's not someone you would want to invite into your fantasy football league. And, even as avowed stat-lovers, we must admit that he has a point.
The Bucs' NFL ranking at the end of the season, whether it be first, second or sixth, will not tell the story of this defense. The current two-spot certainly doesn't reflect the peaks and valleys that unit has already experienced this season.
Tampa Bay's defense started the season by holding seven straight opponents to 16 points or less, something not even the 2002 team – you know, the one with the all-time great defense that propelled the team to a Super Bowl title – was able to accomplish. Then, that same crew suddenly forgot how to get off the field on third down and allowed a total of 96 points over the next three weeks (though quarterback Chris Simms did lead the Bucs to victory in two of those three games).
Then, beginning with a battle of the bulging defenses against Chicago in Week 12, the Bucs reeled off a three-game stretch in which they allowed 13, three and 10 points. In games against the Bears, Saints and Panthers, the Bucs permitted only two touchdowns, one on a one-yard drive after a fumble and one in mop-up time against Carolina.
After the offense saved the Bucs against Washington and Atlanta, the defense reasserted itself as the team's leading edge in huge division wins over the Saints and Panthers.
"We're playing better," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who had four interceptions in those two contests, including two virtual game-winners. "The past couple weeks, at least definitely last week, we got off on third down. We had some key stops in the red zone the past couple weeks that have really made the difference in us winning and losing. That's what good teams do, you deal with adversity playing in the red zone and you find a way to win in those situations. We've done that well in the past two weeks and helped us win."
So which Buc defense is the real one? Is it more vulnerable than in the past, as it might have looked during November, or is it as capable of carrying a team to glory as that 2002 group?
Thrillingly, that remains to be determined. The Bucs are suddenly in position to make some real noise in this year's playoff race and postseason tournament, and their proud defense can once again make a statement as its generation's best.
It all comes down to December, and that's what veterans like Barber and eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks wanted the rest of the team to know when they conducted a players-only meeting recently, before the team started on its unfortunately-timed three-game road swing.
The topic of the meeting was December football and Brooks, who did most of the talking, basically wanted to impress upon his younger teammates the importance, the gravity, of the next three games. A strong finish, he let them know with words and charts, can propel a team to great things in January. Those '02 Bucs, for instance, won three of their last four and were hitting on all cylinders when the playoffs began.
The meeting was aimed at the whole team, not specifically the defense, and truth be told there is a lot more youth and inexperience on the offensive side of the ball. Furthermore, the performances of Simms, Cadillac Williams, Anthony Davis and several others on offense are going to be just as critical to the Bucs' final-month success as that of the defense.
Still, Brooks, the unquestioned team leader, is the face of this defense, has been for some time. His presence, and the commitment to laying it all on the line being expressed by the likes of Brooks and Barber, is a confidence booster for the rest of the defense.
"Derrick knows this defense inside and out," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "We have Ronde, who in my opinion is Mr. December, making a lot of great plays. It helps to have guys who have played in the system and played it to a top-five level year-in and year-out. We're just fortunate to have leaders like that."
Brooks said he was thankful that the team seemed to willingly absorb his message.
"Having a younger team that has not been in this situation for the past two years, down the stretch, every game means something," said Brooks. "I just wanted to stress to them the importance of rest. And obviously the importance of spending a little extra time on your opponent. Because your opponent spends a little extra time on you.
"We need for them to turn it on. So, I was just trying to give them that small message."
The Bucs' defenders appears to be turning it on already. They'll face a stiff test this Saturday against the New England Patriots' fifth-ranked offense, and they may have a tough time rattling Tom Brady into the type of big-play mistakes on which they usually thrive. But they've completed the first two legs of the road trip in the manner Brooks hoped they would and they're heading to the Northeast with as much focus and determination as they've had all year.
"It was just a little something to get the point home because we were getting ready to face a three-game stretch," said Barber. "Not that we needed any extra motivation, but at least you know what you're working with."
Hovan wasn't on that 2002 defense that set the standard against all Buccaneer defenses seem to be measured against. Barber was, but he doesn't enjoy making comparisons between the two. Buc fans, however, will certainly remember that its calling card was a penchant for big plays at big moments, the kind of seized opportunities that have cropped up over the past few weeks. That is how this defense can define itself over the final three weeks of the regular season, no matter what the final numbers say.
"What I've seen is it's being fast, it's being physical, and when afforded the opportunity guys are making plays out there," said Hovan of the nature of the defense. "It's just guys who know that, when their number's called, when they have to step up, it's happening right now. What better time for it to happen than December."