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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First Down Aggressiveness Drove Bucs' Defensive Success vs. Titans

Tampa Bay's defense held the Titans to 209 yards and two field goals in a 20-6 victory on Sunday, and the foundation for that success was consistently imposing its will on first-down plays

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After an admittedly rough outing in a 39-37 loss to the Houston Texans in Week Nine, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense had a specific goal to pursue as it sought a rebound in Week 10 against Tennessee.

"It's about winning first down," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "Against those guys, they're very tough on first and second down – keeping it third and manageable. Getting [Derrick] Henry going on first down makes it trouble the rest of the game."

On the first two plays of the game, the Buccaneers most definitely did not meet that goal. Rookie quarterback Will Levis started the game with a 15-yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins, and the next play, obviously on first down as well, was a direct snap to running back Tajae Spears that went for another 15 yards. Things got a bit better on the third play, with Joe Tryon Shoyinka beating his blocker underneath and getting to Henry, the 250-pound wrecking ball of a running back, in the backfield for a loss of two. However, Levis then hit wideout Chris Moore for 11 yards, which led to a perfect illustration of Bowles's point. It set up a third-and-one that Henry easily converted with a run up the gut.

Tennessee would end up getting a field goal at the end of that opening possession, but then the Buccaneers' plan began to come together, and the lights went out on the Titans' offense. Only one of their next 10 drives gained more than 23 yards and only one more ended in points, a second field goal in the fourth quarter of a 20-6 Bucs win. After those first two plays, the Bucs began to consistently win on first down.

"We got a few TFLs in there early, got them in some long-yard situations where we could pin our ears back a little bit," said Bowles. "The guys got going early. We worked at it all week; we're going to continue to work at it. They got us going early and just kept it up throughout the game."

After those two 15-yard gains, the Titans ran 25 more plays on either first-and-10 or first-and-goal from the nine. Those 25 plays amounted to a total of 40 yards. Five of them lost yardage as the Bucs defense racked up 10 tackles for loss, its highest total in any game in almost exactly two years. Bowles said this was the result of both some strategic decisions and Tampa Bay's defenders simply making more plays than they had been in recent games.

"It was kind of 50-50," he said. "We wanted to attack more on first down because we knew we could try and get them in second-and-long. Getting [Henry] going early, as we've seen in this league, he can get going downhill really fast. It was a concerted effort to try and get some TFLs."

Things could have been very different if the Bucs hadn't been able to create some third-and-longs. The Titans' offense converted six of its 15 third-down attempts (40%), which is actually not bad during a 209-yard, six-point performance. However, those results broke up sharply between attempts that needed short yardage and ones that needed bigger gains. The Titans were five of six on third downs needing six or fewer yards, but just one of nine when needing seven or more yards. The Bucs' early down success created five third downs on which Tennessee needed 11 or more yards, and they weren't able to convert any of them.

Near the end, with the Bucs up by 14 in the fourth quarter, the defense could really turn up the heat on Levis, and the Titans' last three drives ended in one interception and two turnovers on downs, as Levis was repeatedly harassed in the pocket. That made for a much more enjoyable endgame for Tampa Bay's defense than the week before.

"It feels like we got ourselves out of a funk," said cornerback Jamel Dean. "You could see we had more energy out there, and it was actually fun playing on defense out there."

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