S Jermaine Phillips (23) and the Bucs' defense is ready to play a full 60 minutes against an opponent with a different color scheme
Cue up the NFL team-defense statistics so far in 2008 and some of the usual suspects can be found atop the list – the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles all reside in the top five.
Also sitting there in a familiar position among the cream of the crop of NFL defenses? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course. The Buccaneers actually have the No. 1 defense through the first three preseason games, allowing their opponents an average of only 191 total yards per game.
Of course, none of these figures will mean anything in a matter of days, as the preseason draws to a close and the statistical counters are all wound back to zero. But, as safety Jermaine Phillips said after practice on Monday, being tops in the league is still nice, however long it lasts. It is not the most important consideration, however.
"The bottom line is winning," Phillips said. "As long as we're continuing to get Ws, we're going to be satisfied as a defense. We'd love to be the No. 1 defense, but to be the No. 1 defense and not win games doesn't really mean much. It's a total team effort, as we saw on Sunday. We've got to create more turnovers on defense and we've got to protect the ball better on offense.
"It's always great to be No. 1. Everybody wants to be the best at what they're doing – that's what that signifies. But right now it's the preseason. When we get into September that's all going to go out the window and we're going to see where we stand and where we need to get to."
However fleeting the rankings, the Bucs' solid play still carries some meaning as the regular season looms.
It's worth noting, for instance, that the teams joining the Bucs in the upper echelons of the current defensive rankings are clubs typically known for stout defenses in the regular season. In other words, the list may be meaningless in the long run, but it doesn't look like a fluke.
If past performances in any way indicate future results, it could still be significant.
"These are teams you usually see at the top," reasoned Phillips. "I know that if they're anything like us, they're sticklers for details. We only know one way to play, and that's all-out. I think that's what they do when they go out there – they pride themselves on being the best, just like we do. I think they'll try to go out there and be No. 1 as well."
Furthermore, consider the fact that the Bucs currently rank No. 2 overall against the run, even after playing a team with a traditionally-solid ground game, the Jacksonville Jaguars, on Saturday night.
Maurice Jones-Drew saw only one carry before spraining an ankle and leaving the game, but the Bucs bottled up co-starter Fred Taylor and the Jags' other runners, limiting them to only 37 net yards rushing for the game.
For the preseason, the Tampa Bay defense has permitted an average of only 52.3 rushing yards per game, so preventing teams from getting anything going on the ground has clearly been a point of focus.
"We knew that Jacksonville is a downhill, smash-mouth offense and we needed to stop the run," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said after the game.
In addition, the Bucs' No. 3-ranked pass defense has been able to keep all three preseason opponents from making much progress through the air, allowing only 138.7 passing yards per game. Much of that success, Hovan said, boils down to getting pressure on the quarterback.
"The onus has been on the defensive line to get pressure so we knew we had to get after David Garrard and screw up his rhythm," Hovan said. "I think we were pretty good for the most part in the first half.
"Pretty much the Tampa two is predicated on four linemen getting after the quarterback. We're not trying to throw a lot of blitzes out there. This whole defense, since 1996, has been based on four guys getting to the quarterback, so the onus is on us. We know that we have to get that rush and we know that we have to change the outcome of the game by hitting the quarterback or causing interceptions. We are going to go back to work Monday, get ready for a tough Houston team on Thursday and then hopefully it carries over to the season against New Orleans."
Perhaps the most inspiring nugget the Bucs can take away from their preseason exploits thus far is the way the defense's production has remained consistent, regardless of which unit takes the field. The starters have looked very sharp, but the level of play hasn't dipped once they exit the game, which usually happens early on in preseason contests.
For example, Head Coach Jon Gruden brought a trio of reserve linebackers into the game to play with the rest of the first team on only the third defensive possession of the game. Geno Hayes, Matt McCoy and Quincy Black joined their starting mates and promptly forced a three-and-out from the Jaguars, including a pass breakup by Black.
For comparison, the Bucs' starting unit allowed only 75 total net yards in the first half; the reserves came on in the second half and allowed just 126.
That constant level of play is indicative of the team's overall depth, Phillips said, a trait that will pay huge dividends whether it's the preseason or a tightly-contested matchup late in the regular season.
"I think that's a big credit to the depth," said Phillips. "We feel like we have more depth this year than we've had in a long, long time. That's what you see right there when the starters go out and the 'second starters', if you will, come in and they don't miss a beat."
All preseason accolades aside, both Hovan and Phillips expressed a desire to strap on the pads and square off against their first opponent on the schedule in a real, significant game.
And if the early results from the Buccaneers' defense are any indication, the New Orleans Saints might be staring down a focused, well-prepared and deep unit ready to begin accruing some meaningful stats and rankings.
"I think we're ready," Hovan said. "I think Coach Gruden has done an excellent job with the team throughout training camp. I think we have great depth at a lot of positions right now which gives us a lot of flexibility going into the season. I think that we have the formula right now for success."
Added Phillips: "Man, we've been ready. Right now, especially for the starters, we only play a series here or a couple plays there. We played a half last week, which felt good, but I'm ready to get out there and play a whole 60 minutes and really get this thing going. When the first game gets here, it's going to be like Christmas. I'm going to be really excited. I can't wait."