Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles took to the podium ahead of the team's Week 14 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts to talk about various subjects regarding the defense. He said the team does a good job feeding off each other, much to the benefit of the rookies on defense especially, but with three of the Bucs' next four games at home, it's 'all the better' if the crowd can get into it, too.
Bowles provided those updates during his weekly Thursday press conference, and also touched on a few other notable topics, such as:
1. OLB Shaq Barrett's historic season
Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett leads the NFL in sacks with 14.5 and forced fumbles with six. His sack total puts him just two sacks away from eclipsing Warren Sapp's franchise record for most sacks in a single season. Barrett has four games to record at least 2.5 sacks to eclipse Sapp's record and for a guy that's averaged over a sack per game, I don't think that goal will be too hard. And while this season has been impressive, it's his first such season in his career. So while Barrett will go down in the record books alongside names like Sapp and perhaps Simeon Rice, Bowles made sure to not put Barrett in that conversation quite yet while still giving him props.
"I'm happy for Shaq," Bowles said. "I don't compare him to those guys. I know they had legendary careers and they were all great players, but the way he came in here and worked, and put himself in that position is a credit to him – coming in after the offseason and buying in and then doing all the right things. It's really a credit to Shaq himself."
2. His *lack of* concern over defensive rookies hitting the infamous 'wall' and how much improvement he's seen from the group at this point in the year.
The NFL season is at least four games longer than any collegiate football season. Teams in the FBS play a total of 12 games and when that's what you're used to, finding the energy and stamina to go another four games in your first year can be a daunting task. It's known as the 'rookie wall' because it's a common occurrence. Rookies, especially those that have prominent roles early on, taper off performance-wise towards the final quarter of the season. It doesn't concern Bowles though, who has fielded up to five rookies in a game on the defensive side of the ball alone.
"No. You don't even talk about it," Bowles said of his concern about the 'wall.' "You understand it's a long season and Coach [Bruce] Arians does a great job of making sure they're taking care of their bodies and giving them rest time when they need rest time and picking it up when we need to get it picked it up. Those guys are young, between 20 and 23 years old, they can run all day."
Especially over the last few games, Bowles and anyone who has been watching, has seen a noticeable improvement in the young players on defense. Rookie inside linebacker Devin White earned NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month for November. Since his return from injury in Week 6, White has recorded 61 tackles – the most of any rookie in that span. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting leads the team with two interceptions on the season. Cornerback Jamel Dean is second on the team and tied for sixth in the league with 13 passes defensed. And while Bowles isn't one to gush, he acknowledges that this draft class is constantly improving.
"We were confident in them when we drafted them," Bowles said. "It was just a matter of time for those guys to start to gel and get together. Every week is a different week, we've just got to continue to do the things that got us to playing half decent right now. We got a long way to go, as long as they keep getting better each week I think they'll be fine."
3. How the secondary in particular has improved.
Two of those aforementioned rookies are in the secondary. Dean sits behind second-year cornerback Carlton Davis in passes defensed, who has 14 on the year. It's tied for the third-most of any player in the league. The Bucs as a whole have the most passes defensed of any team with 71 and most of those come from secondary players. As a result, it's hard to argue that the secondary is starting to turn the corner, even with how young they are. There are a few keys to that, according to Bowles.
"Repetition and communication – just seeing things and correcting them," he said. "Getting a feel for each other as well, as well as getting feel for the coaches, and us getting a feel for them. I think it's all inclusive. I think it's a credit to those guys the way they put in the work with their position coaches and come out to practice every day and it's translating over to the game."