DE Greg White, who has a sack in each of the first three games, has had plenty to celebrate on defense this year
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
This oft-used quote, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli – a British Prime Minister from the 1800s – but popularized by the great American writer Mark Twain, could easily apply to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense through the first three games in 2008.
The most commonly used statistic to rank the league's 32 teams in defense is yards allowed per game. After finishing the 2007 campaign as the No. 2-ranked unit in this category by allowing just 278.4 yards per game, the Bucs are currently sitting at No. 26, permitting 359 yards on average.
Since breaking into the top 10 in the rankings in 1997, the Bucs have rarely dropped out of that company. They've only ranked outside the top 10 in one of the last 11 seasons, and they've finished in the top five eight of those 11 years. That would lead one to believe that this year's defense, if it doesn't improve its spot in the rankings, would be a shadow of its former self.
But does anyone really believe the Bucs are the 26th-best defense in the league? Certainly not Head Coach Jon Gruden or any of his players. Ranking the best units in the league by the narrow definition of yards allowed ignores some more important numbers the Bucs care about. The most important of course is this one: 2-1.
"Stats are such hogwash; you can't even turn on the TV now without reading your stats," Gruden said. "Winning and losing is the No. 1 stat."
Obviously, the Bucs would like to allow fewer yards than they have so far, and it's a good bet that they'll get that issue under control soon. But there are more specific statistics that paint a different picture of the defense than "number 26."
"Turnover ratio, to us, is a big stat," Gruden said. "We've really improved our red zone defense and played better down there. But we do look at turnovers and impact plays as game-breaking plays. Usually when you score on defense or special teams, you win. Statistics prove that. At the same time, we'd like to play better on defense from coast to coast, from start to finish. We won a Super Bowl here by scoring nine defensive touchdowns and that was a big reason for that."
Look more closely into those categories Gruden pointed out and you'll see a much different depiction of the Tampa Bay defense.
The Buccaneers have already tallied five turnovers on defense through three games – all interceptions – and have brought two of those picks back for touchdowns. Only the Green Bay Packers, this weekend's opponent, have scored as many defensive touchdowns so far this year.
Furthermore, the Bucs are currently fourth in red zone defense. After finishing the 2007 campaign ranked 29th in the category – allowing opponents to score touchdowns 60 percent of the time they got inside the Bucs' 20-yard line – the Tampa Bay defense is currently permitting opponents to cross the goal line on only 25 percent of their red-zone trips.
The numbers don't stop there. The Bucs rank ninth in third-down percentage, as opponents convert only 34 percent of the time. They are tied for ninth in scoring average, allowing their foes to score an average of only 19 points per game. The defense has racked up eight sacks already – also good enough to tie for ninth in the NFL – after tallying only five quarterback takedowns through the first three games of 2007.
Getting a better picture of the overall strength of this unit now?
Rankings matter little in the big picture, linebacker Cato June asserts. The No. 26 tag the Bucs currently sport doesn't accurately portray the defense as a unit and can't minimize the club's 2-1 record.
"It doesn't bother us that much, because yards allowed is not the only stat that goes into playing a football game," June said. "We're going out there and getting wins. If we can come out 26th and go 12-4, I think we did pretty decent out there. It's just about us going out there and not giving up the extra yards and not giving up the big plays which cause our stats to be that high."
Safety Jermaine Phillips echoed the sentiment.
"I think that we're starting off fast as a defense and playing well, but it's something in the second half where we have a lapse here and there," Phillips said. "If we want to be a championship team, that's something we have to get better at. But if we are getting off the field on third downs and we are creating turnovers, you have to be excited about that. We judge ourselves on W's, not the stats and the numbers we give up. As long as we continue to get victories we are going to be satisfied."
Defensive end Greg White said the chunks of yardage the Bucs have allowed in slugfests with the Saints and Bears are something the defense is working to minimize, but are hardly the only stat worth noting as the unit works in some new faces.
"It's always a concern," White said. "We try to keep them on the low, but it's about scoring. If they never score, they can't win. I don't care if they have 1,000 yards on us – if they don't score, they don't win.
"It's early in the year and it's all a learning experience. With some of the new guys like Jimmy Wilkerson and Aqib [Talib] and all them coming in, we're trying to jell and play off of each other. I would hope that it'll tighten up real soon. We're just trying to get together right now and we're doing pretty well. With a home game this week it should be pretty good."
As unusual as it might be to find the Bucs near the bottom of the league's defensive rankings to this point, Twain himself would have been proud of Phillips' assessment of the Bucs' overall disdain for those pesky statistics that don't tell the whole story.
"We can be 27th-ranked and if we get a world championship, it's all worth it," said Phillips.