CB Brian Kelly wants to get his hands on the football more often, and hopefully even score a few points
The 2005 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have put some numbers on paper that no other Bucs team had seen since 1998. No one at One Buccaneer Place is doing handstands over this development, however.
Here it is: In losses to San Francisco and Carolina, the Bucs went two consecutive games without forcing a turnover, the first such streak since games against Detroit and Jacksonville in November of '98. How surprising is this occurrence? Consider that the 2005 Bucs have actually had three takeaway-free games this season (including their Week Two win over Buffalo), after having just three such games in the past four-and-a-half years.
Is there a reason for this surprising two-game drought? There are certainly contributing factors. Combined, the 49ers and Panthers called just 38 passing plays, and there is so much more that can go wrong for an offense when the quarterback drops back. Simeon Rice, the master of the sack-fumble play, didn't play in San Francisco. Opposing offenses have too often started in Buc territory, where the defense's top priority is limiting the opposition to a field-goal attempt.
But an underlying reason? Almost certainly not. This is the same defensive scheme the Bucs have had mastered since 1996, and maybe even a slightly more aggressive form of it, with fewer two-deep snaps. Rice is still there, steaming off the edge. Other proven turnover-producers – Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly – are still at the tops of their games. The run defense is stronger than it has been in years, which should theoretically force more opponents into passing situations. The pass rush has all the elements to be strong, even if that hasn't shown up as much as expected to this point.
So the Buccaneers certainly can produce the turnovers just as frequently as ever. They had five takeaways at Minnesota and another four at Green Bay. They just haven't.
And they must.
"Two games we've gone without turnovers, and obviously this team feeds off turnovers," said Brooks, who memorably scored five touchdowns (including playoffs) during the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl season, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "It's an area we will address. In order to win games here, going into the second half of the season, you look at the turnover ratio, not just our team, but the league in general. Late in the season, teams that protect the ball win, and teams that get the ball win. [Head Coach Jon Gruden] is not asking us to do more then we are capable of."
Gruden has made this call to his defense before, and its not a request Buccaneer defenders consider unreasonable or overly burdensome. This is a crew that expects to get in the end zone from time to time, and doesn't feel fulfilled unless it has at least set up some easy scores. Defensive end Simeon Rice says the Bucs need to score more – on offense and defense. Gruden is simply stating the obvious: The Buccaneers need a return of their big-play defense if they are going to win consistently.
"Turnovers and splash plays on defense have been a characteristic of ours around here and we'd like to return to that," said Gruden.
Kelly leads the team with three interceptions; all three came in the Bucs' first three games. He and Barber are having outstanding seasons once again, and they've broken up 10 passes each for a pass defense that ranks second in the league in yards allowed. But they have one interception combined in the last five games.
Of course, as long as Barber and Kelly stay disciplined in the Bucs' scheme, their chances for picks will rest largely on chance. Still, Kelly says the defense has left some potential turnovers on the board.
"There were some opportunities against Carolina; we could have gotten some," said Kelly. "If you look back over the last three or four games, there have been opportunities for us. And we've got to create some opportunities. We've got to be a little bit more opportunistic, got to take some chances, just got to do what we've got to do to get turnovers."
There is clearly a significant amount of luck involved in turnover production. For instance, the Bucs did force running back DeShaun Foster to fumble on Sunday, but the willful football shot about eight yards to the sideline before Tampa Bay defenders could grab it. Still, the Buccaneers do work specifically on creating (and avoiding) turnovers every day in practice, and it seemed to be paying off early in the season. Fundamentals, a rejuvenated pass rush and – yes – a dash of luck should put the Bucs back into the turnover column soon.
"It's little stuff here and there [preventing turnovers," said safety Will Allen, who had two interceptions at Green Bay in Week Three. "We give up a big play on third down here and there, let the running back scramble for a couple of yards, miss tackles here and there. We're just not playing great ball. We're playing good ball, but not great. That's the keys to victory, turnovers and playing great defense, playing sound special teams and great offense."