The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense was last seen as the dazzling plus-one to Tom Brady at the Super Bowl LV dance, turning heads with a dominant performance against Patrick Mahomes, the other star of the party. Brady, who now has two more rings than the Olympics, won the MVP award, and deservedly so after throwing three touchdown passes and leading an efficient turnover-free attack. But thanks to a defense that was just the third ever to hold a Super Bowl opponent without a touchdown, the game turned into a 31-9 rout.
It's safe to say Tampa Bay's 2020 defense peaked at the perfect time, and it's also fair to say that Ndamukong Suh, one of that unit's linchpins (his word), turned in one of his best performances as a Buccaneer. Suh's 1.5 sacks led an all-out backfield onslaught that produced five sacks, eight quarterback hits and a dizzying 29 pressures of Mahomes.
And here's the good news: That kind of outing could become the new norm in 2021. After re-signing with the Buccaneers on Monday and clinching that the team would return all of its starters for a title defense, Suh suggested both he and the defense as a whole could be significantly better this coming season.
Even agreeing that his 7.5 sacks in 2020, including the playoffs, was part of a very productive season for him, Suh felt it easily could have been more. Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers emphasized to Suh before and after the postseason that he could make a bigger impact.
"I still left a lot of things out on the table," said Suh. "And myself and Coach Kacy talked about that, especially before we went into the playoffs and as we went into the offseason after we got done. Just having that conversation and understanding: 'There's no question you can get double-digit sacks and whatnot. You've just got to continue to finish and find ways to do it.' You look at the Minnesota game, that sticks out in my head. I mean, I missed three sacks, so imagine that – I'm at nine. So it's a different ballgame. It's just about continuing to finish, and it's not easy in this league but I know I still have the ability to do it."
View photos of the 22 Super Bowl starters who will be returning for the 2021-2022 season.
Suh was the second player and first non-quarterback selected in the 2010 draft and he immediately delivered on promise that suggested with a 10-sack season in Detroit. He won the first of his five Pro Bowl invites and three first-team Associated Press All-Pro awards that season and kicked of a decade-plus of generally being one of the hardest interior linemen in the NFL to handle. He has not yet had another 10-sack campaign but he remains very disruptive and is only getting more and more accustomed to his role in Todd Bowles' aggressive defense.
"Without question I think I had a better year [in 2020]," said Suh, who originally signed with the Buccaneers in 2019 and then returned on a second deal last year. "I found ways to be more successful in the particular defense we're running. I understand how I'm kind of put in the defense in a lot of ways where sometimes I have to be a decoy to free up other guys, which I have no problem doing and I've done that a lot in my career. But also I like to join the party and have fun myself. At the end of the day, I'm really focused on whatever's best for the team, but at the same time I've got to be able to continue to produce and make plays."
The Buccaneers have finished with the NFL's top-ranked rush defense in each of Suh's two years in town. While the pass defense ranked 21st in 2020 in yards allowed per game, it was eighth in yards per pass and seventh in sacks per pass play. The run defense, however, gave up 20 more yards per game in the season's second half than it did in the first, which probably had something to do with the loss of Vita Vea in Week Five. Suh said the Bucs will have to do a lot of offseason film study to identify specific ways they can improve, but he did have a couple of key areas in mind.
"Just off the top of my head I would say we could do better in the run defense, even though we were considered number-one," he said, using disdainful air quotes for the words 'number-one.' "We gave up some big runs, especially [if] you look at the Minnesota game again. They dominated us. Then you come back and you look at the Saints games – they were able to have some big runs, especially when their quarterback runs in different situations like that. And then in the pass game I think we gave up some very, very big plays, going back as early as the L.A. Chargers game. We had a couple of deep balls that came over our head, which was a combination of rush and coverage.
"So I think as a collective unit we can get a lot better. We can finish as the number-one defense – that is to be our particular goal – in totality."
Suh was 23 when he had that monstrous 10-sack season as a rookie. He's now 34 – and a new father of twin boys! – but he thinks he can do it again. That would certainly help the Bucs' build on its Super Bowl momentum, as would the continued development of a young but promising secondary. More good fortune in the health department would help, too; Vea was the only starter in 2020 to miss significant time due to injury. If Suh's history is a guide, he should be counted on to be in the middle of the action for the entire season. He has never missed a game or a start due to injury in his 11-year career, appearing in 184 games, including the playoffs.
"Really, it's just being prepared, and if you have a solid base that is always at a high level, when you do have issues then you can manage those a lot easier as you go through," he said. "Because everybody knows the NFL has a hundred percent injury rate, as we call it, and really I call it the 'boo-boo rate.' If you're smart and know how to take care of yourself and you've got a great team, you're always going to be available, and I've always prided myself on that."