Head Coach Jon Gruden expects big things out of the Bucs' defense this season
When Jon Gruden arrived in Tampa in 2002, he knew he had inherited a great defense.
Gruden made a few tweaks — moving Shelton Quarles to middle linebacker, for instance — made one big challenge, and then stepped back and watched that defense dominate.
The challenge? Gruden wanted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense to score. Not just prevent scoring, but score on its own. Specifically, he wanted nine touchdowns. And though it took until the final minute of the last of 19 games — Super Bowl XXXVII, to be exact — the Buccaneers' defense obliged.
That 2002 Bucs defense finished first in the NFL rankings that year and had one of the best seasons by any defense in the modern era. One thing that group did particularly well was force turnovers — 42 of them overall, including 31 interceptions. And, of course, they could score.
The 2008 Buccaneers are coming off a season in which they finished second in the NFL in defense. That 2007 group, however, was more solid than spectacular. Heading into this season, Gruden wanted something a little more from his defense.
Once again, he wanted touchdowns. And once again, Buccaneer defenders are doing their best to oblige.
"You can tell they're trying; every time we get a turnover we're lateraling it," said Gruden on Monday, setting off a ripple of laughter at his day-after-game press conference. "It looks like a volleyball game. They're taking it to heart."
They are succeeding, too. Through four games, the Buccaneers have scored three defensive touchdowns, tying them with Sunday's foe, the Green Bay Packers, for the most in the NFL. Both the Bucs and the Packers scored in that fashion in Sunday's 30-21 win for the home team, as Jermaine Phillips ran a Ryan Grant fumble back 38 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Charles Woodson returned an interception 62 yards for a score.
The Bucs' defense had a better day overall, allowing only 181 total yards to a potent Green Bay offense and winning the turnover battle by one. On the other hand, those numbers would have been meaningless if the Bucs hadn't rallied to win after the Packers took a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter on Woodson's big play. A week earlier, the Buccaneers had surrendered 405 yards to the Bears but still got the win.
Gruden thought both of those game performances were outstanding.
"Unfortunately today everybody judges an offense or a defense by total yards allowed or total yards gained," said Gruden, repeating a theme from last week, and for good reason. "That to me is hogwash. I think the great defenses don't give up touchdowns in the red zone. They get off the field on third down. I think they create impact plays, whether it be sacks or turnovers. And I think the great defenses, at least the ones I've been around, they score themselves."
The Buccaneers are fourth in the NFL in red zone defense, which is ranked by the percentage of drives inside your 20 that end with touchdowns. The Bucs have allowed only 25% of such drives to reach the end zone. The Packers didn't even crack the Bucs' red zone on Sunday; their three scores came via Woodson's play and two long TD receptions by Greg Jennings. The breakdowns on those two plays, while not one of the game's positives, were easily identifiable and not likely to be duplicated often.
The Buccaneers are allowing 33.3% of third down tries to be converted against them, which is good for ninth in the NFL in that category. Tampa Bay's defense had been struggling on third downs in the second halves of their first three games, allowing third-down success rates to spike to 48.7% after the intermission, but that problem was solved against the Packers. Green Bay converted only one of five third-down tries in the second half of Sunday's game.
And, boy, are they creating impact plays. Just ask Packer back Ryan Grant, who felt the impact of Derrick Brooks' helmet on the football midway through the third quarter on Sunday. Brooks squared Grant up in the hole on a stretch play to the left and popped the ball loose, setting up Phillips' TD runback.
"We've got some guys back there that are very opportunistic," said Gruden. "Ballhawks — the [Ronde] Barbers, Brooks, they've shown that for years here. But you see guys like Cato June and [Barrett] Ruud; I think this safety man we have, [Tanard] Jackson, is going to be a great ballhawking safety for years to come; obviously Aqib Talib and Phillip Buchanon. We have some playmakers back there and we're trying to emphasize getting turnovers and scoring, finishing the plays."
In beating the Packers, the Buccaneers' threw less than 50% of the number of passes they had put up the week before in Chicago. The pass blocking, however, was 100% as good.
For the second game in a row, the Bucs went the entire 60 minutes without allowing a sack. Brian Griese was taken down on his last drop-back of the game against Atlanta in Week Two, but has since tossed 97 passes without being sacked. The second-longest streak in team history is 111 pass attempts without being sacked, which Doug Williams enjoyed during a five-game stretch in 1979. The top streak in team history is still a ways off; Brad Johnson threw 160 consecutive passes in 2003 without being sacked.
Two sackless weeks have allowed the Buccaneers to improve to fifth in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. Throw in the team's ninth-ranked rushing attack and its third-place spot in yards per carry, and the picture of a dominant offensive line starts to emerge.
Gruden sees the same thing, though he does spread the credit around a little bit.
"A lot of that's because of Griese," said Gruden. "He does a great job getting rid of the ball. Our line is doing some good things, there's no question about it. They were very good particularly in the second half when we were running the football. You throw the ball 97 times in a row without a sack, that's a credit to a lot of guys. We're really happy with our line and we expect them to continue to get better throughout the year."
Perhaps most impressively, the offensive line has played this well even after its leader and rising star at right guard, Davin Joseph, went down in the second week of the preseason with a foot injury. Rookie Jeremy Zuttah, a third-rounder who was playing tackle at Rutgers a year ago, has filled in admirably.
The Bucs were hoping to get Joseph back for the Packers game, but had to scrap that plan when his healing foot didn't respond well to some early-week work. Now the target is next Sunday at Denver, if possible.
"He practiced Wednesday, didn't feel great on Thursday or Friday," said Gruden. "He is going to give it a go again today and tomorrow and hopefully be on the practice field Wednesday. We are eager to get him back."
Earnest Graham has been in the starting lineup for less than a calendar year, but he's wasting no time putting his name in the Buccaneers' record book.
Last year, as he was putting a vise grip on the starting job following injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, Graham began a scoring spree that gave him his first Buccaneer record. Graham notched a touchdown every week from November 4 to December 16, making him the first player in team history to score a TD in six consecutive games.
That the solidly-built Graham would be good around the goal line wasn't an enormous surprise. This year, however, he's proving that he's also quite good in the open field.
Graham's 47-yard run down to the Green Bay one-yard line — followed by his own one-yard score on the next snap — iced the Bucs' victory on Sunday. It wasn't Graham's first long jaunt of the season, however. He also ripped off a 46-yarder at New Orleans in Week One and followed with a 68-yard touchdown against Atlanta in Week Two.
That makes Graham only the second player in Buccaneer history to have three runs of longer than 45 yards in a single season. He joins his current backfield partner, Warrick Dunn, on that short list; Dunn had three such runs during his 1997 rookie campaign. Obviously, with 12 games left to go, Graham has an excellent opportunity to take the top spot alone.
At this point, Graham's exploits are becoming commonplace, and that's good for the Buccaneers.
"I hate to use the word 'surprised' anymore because of what he did last year," said Gruden. "He was one of the key engines in our division championship run. He is a great back. I think he has put himself in an elite category as a runner. He is an outstanding pass protector and a very good receiver, and he is one great guy."