The Tampa Bay Buccaneers commenced their second practice of Week 12 on Thursday ahead of their matchup with the Falcons in Atlanta. Following practice, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles held his weekly press conference and provided insight into several things on the defensive side of the ball. Here is what he had to say on some of those key topics:
1.The front seven has gotten better in their understanding of the scheme.
It's no secret the Bucs' defensive strength is up front, as evidenced by the team having one of the best rushing defenses in the league. They're currently allowing just 80.9 yards on the ground thanks in large part to the defensive line with space eaters like defensive tackle Vita Vea and quick inside linebackers that can track running backs like Lavonte David and Devin White.
Part of that is the sheer talent of the aforementioned three. But another part of it is the increasing comfortability in their new scheme, according to their defensive coordinator.
"I mean I think we are best up front," Bowles said. "Obviously, we've got some big guys up front. Just understanding what's happening – I think we've gotten a lot better there. At the inside backer spot, we've gotten a lot better at understanding what's happening, and the secondary is starting to understand what is happening to them game by game."
Usually experience and understanding go hand-in-hand and the back end of the defense is where the Bucs are the youngest. The oldest starting cornerback is 23 years old and is only in his second season in the league (Carlton Davis). All three of the defensive backs selected in this past year's draft are playing major roles in the secondary with cornerback Jamel Dean coming into his own on the outside, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting seeing work both on the outside and at slot corner and safety Mike Edwards, primarily playing free safety but who also got work at nickel corner this past game. It's resulted in some pretty major growing pains but those will, and have, start to subside even more this last stretch of the season.
"The more they play, the more experience they get," Bowles said. "Some of it's talent, some of it's busted plays, but a lot of it is experience. I think as the games go by and the stakes get less and less, we've just got to clean it up."
2. Julio Jones isn't the only challenge the Atlanta Falcons' offense presents.
Atlanta has the league's third-best passing offense, averaging just over 300 yards through the air per game. A lot of that is thanks to a veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan connecting with veteran receiver and crazy athlete Julio Jones. But Jones isn't the only weapon Atlanta has, even with their star tight end Austin Hooper sidelined.
"They create big problems, obviously," Bowles said. "It's not just Julio – it's [Calvin] Ridley, as well. They've got three tight ends that can play. They throw the ball to the running backs and they have two other receivers that play very well. Then Matt [Ryan] is a very smart guy. I think Dirk [Koetter] does a great job spreading the ball around and mixing up the run and the pass with those guys, so you don't concentrate on Julio. We've got our work cut out for us."
Jones has 882 receiving yards this season and does account for 20% of Atlanta's passing game single-handedly. But Ridley has 614 yards and five touchdowns – one more than Jones. They mix in the run, too, but their offense relies heavily on the passing game. 159 of their 208 first downs as a team have come through the air, compared to just 49 on the ground. The Bucs will get a break if Hooper indeed misses his second-consecutive game, though. He's the team's leading scorer with six receiving touchdowns and has 608 yards on the season.
3. The defense feels a sense of urgency to get more takeaways.
What if I told you the Bucs were top 10 in takeaways? Well, consider yourself told because it's true. The Bucs' defense has 15 takeaways this season, which ties for the 10th most of any team. It's a contrast to last season when the Bucs had 17 total and ranked 22nd with just nine interceptions.
The Bucs have also capitalized off those turnovers. They've given themselves 77 points off takeaways this season, which ranks fifth in the league. But they still aren't satisfied.
"Fundamentals and technique, and then just aggression – going after the ball when you have the opportunity," Bowles said of the keys to getting more takeaways. "Obviously, we've got to get our hands on more balls. We've got to pop more balls loose. Whatever we've got to do to try to get the offense the ball back, we'll try to do. Turnovers are an emphasis all year, all the time. Like you said, sometimes they come in bunches [and] sometimes they don't. They throw you the freebies, but you've got to work for a lot of them, as well."