Historically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been known for defense.
It was the defense, led by future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, that fueled the franchise's rapid rise from hapless expansion team in 1976 to the NFC title game in 1979. That Buccaneer crew made it to the playoffs three times in four years before a decade-and-a-half of losing seasons set in.
When the team, under new ownership, pulled out of that tailspin in the mid-'90s, it was once again the defense that led the charge. That group, led by Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks (and a few others that may soon join them in Canton), propelled the Bucs to five postseason trips in six years and, ultimately, a Super Bowl championship.
That's why rooting for the current version of the Buccaneers may be a strange experience for some long-time fans of the team. The offense set a number of franchise records in 2015, and with 21-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jameis Winston just getting started, the future looks as bright as ever on that side of the ball. The defense, meanwhile, struggled in some key areas and gave up 26.1 points per game, seventh-worst in the NFL.
The Buccaneers, in fact, haven't finished in the top 10 in scoring defense since 2010, which was also the team's most recent winning season. And they haven't finished in the top five – something the last great Tampa Bay defense did five times in an eight-year span – since 2007, which was the Bucs' most recent playoff campaign.
That 2007 season also happened to be Mike Smith's last year as the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator. The Jaguars didn't want to see Smith go; unfortunately for them, he had done a good job in Jacksonville that the Atlanta Falcons came calling with their head coaching position. Now, after seven years and four playoff appearances with the Falcons, Smith is back in the defensive coordinator chair, this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New defensive coordinator Mike Smith meets with members of the media for the first time since joining the Buccaneers.
Can Smith help the Buccaneers restore the defensive glory for which they are known? As good as Winston and company can be on offense, the team definitely needs a stingier defense in order to realize its ultimate postseason goals. If the play of the Jaguars' defense during his five years (2003-07) in charge is any indication, Smith is up to the challenge.
During his introductory press conference in Tampa, Smith noted three areas in particular in which the Buccaneers must do well in order to get the defensive results they want: stopping the run, creating turnovers and getting off the field on third down. His Jaguars were good to great in all of those categories, and the overall result was one of the NFL's best defenses during that five year span.
The primary way in which NFL teams are generally ranked on defense is yards allowed, and of course the most important statistic is points allowed. The Jaguars ranked in the top five in both categories over that five-season span from 2003-07.
Top Five NFL Defenses by Yards Allowed Per Game, 2003-07
1. Pittsburgh: 281.6
2. Baltimore: 284.3
3. Tampa Bay: 289.8
4. Jacksonville: 300.1
5. Dallas: 303.0
Top Five NFL Defenses by Points Allowed Per Game, 2003-07
1. New England: 16.8
2. Pittsburgh: 17.8
3. Baltimore: 17.9
4. Jacksonville: 18.2
5. Tampa Bay: 18.3
As is clear from those lists, that great Buccaneer defense that arose in the '90s continued to produce outstanding results well into the 2000s. However, during the team's current five-season run of sub-.500 records (2011-15), Tampa Bay ranks 28th in yards (366.3) and 31st in points (26.3) allowed per game.
Smith plans to change that, beginning with that list of three key factors. In one of the three, he's fortunate to get a pretty good jump start, as the Buccaneers' run defense finished 11th in the league in 2015, allowing just 100.4 yards per game. On a per-carry basis, Tampa Bay's defense was even better, ranking second in the NFL with an average of 3.45 yards allowed per run.
Smith got the results he wanted out of his run defense during his five years in Jacksonville. The Jaguars were top-five in both of those rushing categories during that span.
Top Five NFL Defenses by Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game, 2003-07
1. Pittsburgh: 90.8
2. Baltimore: 91.1
3. New England: 95.8
4. Minnesota: 98.7
5. Jacksonville: 99.5
Top Five NFL Defenses by Yards Allowed Per Rush, 2003-07
1. Baltimore: 3.37
2. Pittsburgh: 3.68
3. Jacksonville: 3.75
4. Tampa Bay: 3.83
5. Carolina: 3.84
Smith's Jacksonville defense did not finish in the top five in third-down percentage during his five-year coordinator run, but it was fairly proficient in that area, allowing a conversion rate of 38.4 that ranked 15th overall. However, it did improve dramatically in that area after a rough start. The Jaguars were 31st in third-down defense in his first year, allowing a 42.2 conversion rate, but they had improved all the way to third by his third season, at 32.7%. The improvement stuck:
Jaguars' Third-Down Defense, NFL Rank
2003-04: 41.6%, 28th
2005-07: 36.3%, 6th
This is an area in which the Buccaneers' defense needs to make a significant improvement. Last year, Tampa Bay allowed opponents to convert 46.0% of their third down tries, the third-worst mark in the league. That was also the second-highest rate a Tampa Bay defense has ever allowed, and in this case that's not a reflection of the overall league trend to more offense. The Bucs' worst defensive third-down rate for a single season was 46.6% in 1986, and all of the other seasons in the bottom 10 occurred before 1996.
As for turnovers, Smith's Jacksonville teams actually ranked just 22nd in the league in that department from 2003-07, with 137 total takeaways. However, that mostly came down to a lack of fumble recoveries. Those Jaguar defenses were notably good at picking off opposing passers, with 90 interceptions in that span. That's an average of 18 interceptions per season, and it was good enough to get Jacksonville into the top 10 in the NFL rankings for 2003-07.
Most Interceptions, Team Defense, 2003-07
1. Cincinnati: 103
2. Baltimore: 101
3. New England: 100
4. Minnesota: 99
5. Chicago: 96
6. Carolina: 93
7. San Diego: 92
8. Jacksonville: 90
9. Indianapolis: 89
10t. Seattle: 87
10t. Tennessee: 87
Thanks to a stunning drought at the end of the season – just one interception and two fumble recoveries over the last six games – the Buccaneers' defense ended up with 23 takeaways in 2015. That was the team's lowest season total since 2006, when it created 20 turnovers. That's one area in which Smith obviously hopes to see much greater production in 2016.
Can Mike Smith help Dirk Koetter create a balanced team that meets its goals on both offense and defense? Smith's history as a defensive coordinator suggests he can. The answer may determine how soon the Buccaneers make their way back to Super Bowl contention.