Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
The story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense in 2016 is a memorable one, very neatly divided right down the middle. Through their first eight games (weeks 1-9 of the season), the Buccaneers allowed 29.0 points per contest, fourth-worst in the NFL. Through their final eight games (weeks 10-17), the Bucs surrendered 17.1 points per game, fourth-best in the league. Turnarounds don't come much more dramatic, or more symmetrical than that.
The generous (and quite possible) reading of that divide is that it took a couple months for Buccaneer players to fully grasp and become comfortable in the system installed by their new defensive coordinator, Mike Smith. Indeed, players and coaches said at the time that communication issues had to be resolved in order to fix the defense, and then pointed to that very resolution as the reason for the second-half surge. That would bode well for the Buccaneers as they head into their second season with Smith at the helm of the defense.
Photos from Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach.
The less generous reading would be that the first half of last season was just as representative of the capabilities of this defense as the first half, and that there's simply no way to know which way the Bucs' defense will go in 2017.
Potentially supporting either side of that debate would be the Buccaneers' surge in takeaways during the second half of the season. Tampa Bay's defense produced 11 turnovers during the first eight games, including just two in the first four, and then 18 in the final eight contests. The Buccaneers produced multiple turnovers in six of those last eight games, and in many cases – e.g. wins over Kansas City, Chicago and San Diego – they were absolutely critical factors in the games' results. Those takeaways were the biggest difference between the two halves of the season.
So, if one considers those takeaways as the product of better defensive play and something that can be sustained, then it's a mark of progress that should carry over into 2017. If one considers the turnover surge to be more of a fluke, then it's possible it won't be repeated this season. And if the turnovers dip considerably, will the defense still be as stingy as it was in the second half last year.
Photos from QB Jameis Winston's 2016 campaign.
The first question, then, is whether the Buccaneers will be able to duplicate their takeaway-happy ways in 2017, and that in fact is our latest topic as we continue our One Dozen Debates countdown to Training Camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the presence of *Hard Knocks *to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and that will take us right into the start of football on July 28.
We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.
- Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
- Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
- Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
- Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
- Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
- Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
- Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
- Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
- Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
- Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
- Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
- Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?
*Debate #9: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic? *
Coaches certainly believe that turnovers can be taught, and it's certainly reasonable to believe there are some players and some schemes that are better at producing takeaway situations. Sometimes it's as obvious as getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks; logically, more errant and deflected passes are going to be produced by quarterbacks who are rushed or hit as they throw. Quarterbacks are generally among the league leaders in fumbles, too, thanks to unexpected sacks.* *
That said, we can still acknowledge that there is a decently-sized element of chance involved in turnover production. When a cornerback gets a hand in front of the receiver and deflects a pass right to a teammate for a pick-six, a favor Vernon Hargreaves gave to Lavonte David in San Diego last year, that's a great play. If a cornerback deflects a pass and it happens to fly away from all other hands, that's still a great play just without the game-changing result.* *
Do teams generally remain among the best in producing takeaways for multiple seasons in a row? The evidence is mixed. Over the past 10 seasons, there have been 108 teams that ranked in the top 10 in takeaways in a given campaign (there are more than 100 because there were sometimes ties for the 10th spot). Of those 108 teams, 48 were also ranked in the top 10 the season before; 60 were not. Twelve different teams went on runs of three or more seasons in the top 10, with the Giants owning a long streak of six years (2010-15). Kansas City, Arizona, Carolina, Denver and Philadelphia all have current two seasons streaks so could potentially stretch that to three or more.* *
The Buccaneers ranked in the top 10 for three consecutive seasons from 2007-09. Generally, Tampa Bay's defense has been pretty good in this regard, ranking no lower than 17th in any of the last 10 seasons. Cumulatively, the Bucs produced the seventh-most takeaways (268) from 2007-16.* *
The top-selling rookie jerseys this offseason, according to Dicks Sporting Goods.
Smith has been either a defensive coordinator or a head coach in the NFL since 2003, excluding the 2015 season between his stints in Atlanta and Tampa. Seven of his 13 defenses in that span ranked among the top 12 in the league in takeaways, including six of the last seven. He's had only two seasons in which his defense ranked lower than 17th in that regard.* *
With Smith back for a second year after getting head coach consideration early in the offseason, the Bucs would appear to have a good scheme and a good leader for producing turnovers. Do they have the personnel to rank among the NFL's best in takeaways? Well, linebacker Lavonte David has 10 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries in five seasons. His running mate, Kwon Alexander, already has three picks and three forced fumbles in 28 career games and has the potential to be even more of a playmaker.* *
Brent Grimes is the only player in the NFL with at least four interceptions in each of the last four seasons. In each of the last six years in which he's played in at least 13 games, Grimes has four or more picks. His league-leading 24 passes defensed in 2016 indicate that his latest four-INT season was no fluke and that he is still actively getting into throwing lines. Grimes's young running mate at cornerback, Hargreaves, had just one interception in his rookie season but the former first-round pick has looked very much like a playmaker on the rise during the 2017 offseason. Safety Keith Tandy, who is battling for one of two open starting jobs, had four picks in five games after taking over as a starter at the end of last year.* *
BUCS BEAT: WINSTON THROWS FIRST PITCH
And, again, improved pressure on opposing quarterbacks should help all of those back seven players, if the Buccaneers can muster it. Tampa Bay ranked ninth in the NFL last year with 38 sacks but didn't always produce consistent pressure in the backfield. They also played without edge rusher Jacquies Smith, saw several other key linemen miss extended time with injury and can probably expect more out of 2016 second-round pick Noah Spence now that Spence's shoulder has been repaired.* *
The last consistently great Buccaneers team, which made the playoffs six times in nine seasons from 1997-2005, was built around a legendarily-good defense, one that was definitely adept at forcing turnovers. The year before that run began, Tampa Bay's defense made a nice turnaround in the second half of the season. The Buccaneers ranked 23rd in takeaways and 19th in points allowed through their first eight games that year, then ranked 10th in takeaways and fourth in points allowed during their last eight games.* *
The Buccaneers' current defense has a long way to go to match the results of that legendary group (results that included a Super Bowl title), but it's turnover-fueled turnaround last year could similarly be the start of something lasting and strong.