The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense forced a total of two turnovers in the first four games of the 2016 season, and an overall -9 turnover ratio was a huge factor in the team's 1-3 start. Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, who had installed a new defense over the offseason after arriving in January, didn't expect that takeaway drought to continue, and suggested that when his squad did get a few of them they would then "come in bunches."
Smith couldn't have been more right. Now, after the Bucs' defense recorded a season-high six sacks in last Sunday's rousing win over Seattle, he's saying the same thing about that critical category of play. If he ends up being right again, Tampa Bay's defense should continue its dramatic improvement of late.
Since Week Five, Smith's crew has forced a league-high 18 turnovers. With a similar improvement on offense, the Bucs have remarkable flipped their turnover ratio to +2, the first time the franchise has ever seen that kind of in-season turnover improvement. Again, that turnover production is a big reason why the team is 5-2 since that 1-3 start.
Thanks to that six-sack game against Russell Wilson, the Buccaneers' defense has also risen up the league's sack chart, though not quite as dramatically. Tampa Bay is tied for 10th with 18 sacks since Week Five, although none of those were actually recorded in Week Five and the Bucs had a bye in Week Six. Since the San Francisco game in Week Seven, Tampa Bay ranks third in the league with that same 18-sack total, behind only Carolina and the New York Giants (19 each).
Smith thinks the big pass-rush production from Sunday might become more common because the pass rush and the coverage are complementing each other better in the second half of the season.
"We've said it before: I think sacks and turnovers, they come in bunches and, knock on wood, we want that to keep happening," said Smith. "And those guys have done a very good job when we've done four-man rush, when we've done five-man rush and when we've done-six man rush. So, we've been able to have some production both ways and when you do that, you've got to have coverage and our coverage guys have done a nice job on the back end. So, complementary football is what we're talking about, not only as a full team, but we're talking about it on the defensive side. When we have tight coverage and the quarterback's got to go to a second look, we're going to get an opportunity to push the pocket and get after the quarterback."
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and rookie defensive end Noah Spence are driving the greater sack totals. Tampa Bay's defense had four sacks in the first half against Denver in Week Four but McCoy suffered a calf injury just before halftime and Spence also finished the game with a shoulder injury. McCoy did not play the following week at Carolina, while Spence played in a limited role after being fitted for a shoulder harness. The Bucs won that game on Monday Night Football but did not record a sack.
In the seven games since, McCoy has 4.0 sacks and two forced fumbles, including three sacks during the current three-game winning streak. Spence has had 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in that same span, including 2.5 sacks during the winning streak. His efforts were recognized by the NFL on Thursday when he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November.
"That's good for everybody," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter of Spence's award, the first one won by a Bucs' rookie defender since Lavonte David in 2012. "When your team does well, there's plenty of credit to go around. We've said in here multiple times, Noah's improving and that's why he was picked where he was picked, he's a good football player."
Added Smith: "That's a great honor, to be named the Defensive Rookie of the Month and it's well deserving. He's had some solid games over the last four weeks and we anticipate that the arrow is pointing up and will continue to go in that direction. As we've said, he surprised us – and me personally – in his ability to play all three downs. We were anticipating he was going to be a DPR, a designated pass rusher, at the beginning of the season and his pitch count is way up and it says a lot about his desire to be a successful football player."
Smith also said that McCoy has done an excellent job mentoring his rookie teammate, even at times taking him aside after practice to work on some specific details. Of course, the veteran All-Star would be making things easier on the rookie even if he never said a word to him on the practice field, thanks to the impact he makes in games. McCoy has opened up opportunities for all the Bucs' pass-rushers, and that's paying off with the likes of Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald returning from injuries.
"I've said it many times: Gerald makes everybody else around him better because he commands double teams most of the time," said Koetter. "As a three-technique, they almost always double him. And when he gets on a center, in between a guard and a center in the 'A' gap, he's really tough. On Ryan [Russell's] sack, he was in a game with Gerald and Gerald went up the field, they doubled Gerald, [Russell] wrapped underneath, got the sack. So he gets the sack, it's an assist for Gerald.
"He makes everybody around him better and now that we're a little healthier and we're playing with such confidence – Noah is on a roll, Robert Ayers had something like seven quarterback hits last week. They still have got to account for Gerald because [if] they try to single-block him, he's going to cause problems."
- Jacquizz Rodgers practiced without limitations for the second day in a row and appears to be on track to return to action after missing four games with a foot injury. If he does play, the Bucs will have Rodgers and Doug Martin in action in the same game for just the second time, since Martin was hurt in the first quarter in Arizona in Week Two.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Chargers.
Rodgers still has one more practice to navigate, after which there will be an official injury report with game-status designations on Friday, but Koetter discussed the offensive backfield as if there would be another option available this Sunday in San Diego. In addition, the Buccaneers released running back Mike James earlier in the week, leaving them with an active tailback trio of Martin, Rodgers and steadily-improving rookie Peyton Barber.
Exactly how Koetter and his staff will utilize those three is still a work in progress, and things could get even more complicated after this week's game.
"That's going to be a little bit tricky working that out as we get healthier at running back," said Koetter. "We went from dire straits to an abundance of guys we like and that's even going to get better next week, knock on wood, if we can stay healthy this week because we are going to get Charles Sims back next week. So, there will be a little trick to that. We'll tag some plays, we also see how the game does. [Running Backs Coach] Tim Spencer does a really good job of handling that and the other thing is it's Quizz's first game back. We'll see, we're just going through practice right now, see how he adjusts this week. Peyton is improving every day. Doug has been getting better since his layoff. That's going to turn into a positive for us and [I'm] not sure exactly how that's going to work out today."
Although Rodgers excelled during a three-week period as the team's lead back, with both Martin and Sims shelved, that role has undoubtedly gone back to Martin since his return. Fortunately, Rodgers has plenty of experience complementing a lead back, even doing so in a Dirk Koetter offense in Atlanta from 2012-14.
WATCH: THURSDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
"For the first part of Quizz's career in Atlanta, he was primarily a third-down back," said Koetter. "He was always the third-down guy that came in for Michael Turner or came in for Steven Jackson, where that's not really Doug's forte. Doug's always been a feature back, so Quizz has a lot of experience in protection, in the screen game, so he'd never really been the feature back until this year when we used him that way and he did a really nice job there. So, the fact that he showed that he can do that and showed that side of his game, I think that just makes us stronger for the long run."
- Like Rodgers, most of the players on the Bucs'**injury report**stayed in the same categories on Thursday. The only change was to Mike Evans, who did not practice on Wednesday but was back in action on Thursday. The reason for that is simple: He missed work on Wednesday to witness the birth of his daughter.
Otherwise, safety Chris Conte (chest) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (foot) were held out once again. Center Evan Smith, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, was still not ready to return, while tight end Brandon Myers (hip) and safety Ryan Smith (shoulder) remained limited.
Pictures of the Chargers' starting offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.
San Diego's injury report](http://www.chargers.com/team/injury-report), which is also seven players long, was identical to the one the team posted on Wednesday. It includes two defensive starters – cornerback Brandon Flowers (concussion) and rookie inside linebacker Jatavis Brown (knee) – who have not yet practiced this week. Starting free safety Dwight Lowery (hand) is also on the report but has been a full participant in practice.
On offense, wide receiver Tyrell Williams has missed the first two practices with a shoulder injury. After the early-season injury to Keenan Allen, Williams has emerged as the team's leading pass-catcher, with 51 receptions for 790 yards and five touchdowns.