The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense surged in the third quarter of the season after hitting the halfway point near the bottom of the league rankings in points and yards allowed. After allowing 34.4 points per game through the first eight contests, the Bucs allowed just 20.0 per game over the most recent four.
The most consistent force in that surge has been the pressure put on opposing quarterbacks by the defensive line, especially bookend edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib. What has not been consistent during that time, or at any point this season actually, has been the lineup…but that too is part of the story of the defense's turnaround.
Here are some snap counts from the Buccaneers' 24-17 win over Carolina this past Sunday, a game that featured 70 total plays for the Tampa Bay defense:
· De'Vante Harris – 70
· Javien Elliott – 66
· Andrew Adams – 32
· Josh Shaw – 8
· Kevin Minter – 4
What unites those five players is that none of them were on the Buccaneers' active roster when the 2018 season began and none were playing any meaningful defensive snaps as recently as six weeks ago. They have varying levels of "newcomer" status – Elliott has been either on the practice squad or the active roster since last year and Harris had a stint with the Buccaneers during the preseason, but the other three had never intersected with the franchise before being added during the season.
All of those players could continue to be important to the Buccaneers down the stretch as they fight for a playoff spot. Minter's low snap count on Sunday is misleading, for example; he was actually the starting middle linebacker (a trouble spot since Kwon Alexander landed on injured reserve in Week Eight) but the Bucs ended up in sub packages for most of the game. Minter still managed to record a sack and another tackle during his four plays on the field. Harris started along with Ryan Smith, who had last seen significant defensive snaps in Week Six, as the Buccaneers were without starting cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Carlton Davis. Elliott has been the nickel back for the last five games after a foot injury sidelined M.J. Stewart, who himself was in that role because Vernon Hargreaves landed on injured reserve.
Grimes and Stewart could return to action this coming Sunday against New Orleans, but it's likely that Harris, Elliott and Smith will be needed down the stretch. They were certainly needed on Sunday and they combined to give a makeshift defensive lineup some real bite. Adams and Elliott combined for four interceptions and Harris broke up three passes.
"You have to credit Jason Licht and his staff with bringing in the right kind of guys," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Because when you're bringing in guys that weren't with you in training camp, you're bringing in guys that are thankful and hungry – thankful to be here and hungry to be here, hungry to make a name for themselves. And they're big learners and guys that can fit in right off the bat. It also is a testament to the coaches who have had to get those guys up to speed and get them ready. More than anything, it also is a sign of good leadership in the locker room, that they come into a place where guys in the locker room are setting a good example."
Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner, who also coaches the linebackers, has had a big hand in getting those players up to speed, and for devising lineups that can succeed amidst the constantly shifting personnel. For instance, Adams has taken on a very helpful role as, essentially, a hybrid linebacker in the dime package the Bucs have employed frequently since the loss of Alexander and during the two-game absence by Lavonte David. Duffner has also been impressed by the approach and the results of these midseason fill-ins.
"Our players have responded to those opportunities," he said. "We've put a lot of guys in some different spots based on a number of things, injuries and so forth. I think the plus has been that we've got a hungry group of guys, a bunch of guys that really want to have an opportunity to play. When given that chance, so far they've responded, so we're anxious to see that continue."
Tampa Bay has been relatively fortunate in terms of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, which is one of the reasons they continue to lead the league in yards gained per game. Tight end O.J. Howard recently landed on injured reserve and the Bucs played the last game without starters Demar Dotson and DeSean Jackson, but for the most part the starting lineup has been intact all season on that side of the ball. That's a stark contrast to the defense.
Through three quarters of the season, the Buccaneers have yet to start the same 11 players on defense for even two games. That's 12 unique starting lineups in 12 outings, which is obviously tied for the most in the NFL. The Bucs have had 330 different 11-man combinations on the field at some point or another on defense, and even their most common group of 11 has only been on the field for 2.30% of the total snaps. Depending upon how the Buccaneers mix in some players possibly returning from injuries, those numbers could continue to trend in the same direction in Week 13.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Wednesday at AdventHealth Training Center.
These newcomers and relative newcomers to Tampa Bay's defense have varying backgrounds – Minter was a third-round pick, Shaw a fourth-rounder while Adams, Elliott and Harris all started as undrafted rookies – but they have all experienced moments in their careers in which they were released or demoted. They've had to fight for jobs on multiple occasions. Elliott, who returned his first career interception 50 yards to set up a Buccaneer touchdown on Sunday, is a worthy representative for that group and players like them. He was a walk-on at Florida State who didn't play until his senior season and he was a late addition to the Bucs' training camp roster in the summer of 2016. He's been the team's primary nickel back during two different stretches in his career, but he's also been up and down between the practice squad and the active roster on several occasions. He is, as his coaches describe him above, always hungry.
"In this game, you always have to be hungry," said Elliott. "I tell myself to never get comfortable. That's one of the main things I try to work on every day, not getting comfortable. As far as everybody else, it's just building that trust, whether you were here before or not, once you come in we've got to do what we can do to help each other out. When somebody new comes in, I'm going to offer my hand to help them out learning the playbook or whatever it is."
Elliott has clearly built trust with Duffner and the Bucs' coaching staff.
"When he's been called on to play, he's played pretty well," said Duffner. "He came in here as kind of an unheralded guy. He just made noise with his actions when he came into the program. He's again, a focused player, a guy that's got ambition to be as good as he can be and he's following through with it in terms of the preparation and the way he's playing."
Duffner could say many of the same things about Harris or Minter or any of the other players who have not only kept the Bucs' defense afloat in the absence of multiple starters but even helped that unit create better results. They've stayed hungry, and the Bucs' defense has feasted.