There are plenty of places to spread blame around for the struggles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense during the team’s 1-4 start to the season.
You could blame the schedule, which has had the Bucs play three straight road games — including a short-week Thursday night disaster at Atlanta — and has had them face each of the elite QBs of the NFC South once already: Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. You could blame the leadership, as first-year head coach Lovie Smith has implemented a Tampa 2 defensive scheme that, while once dominant in the NFL, has mostly become outdated and ineffective for the teams who try it. Or you could blame the talent, as some of the players relied upon to be difference-makers for the Bucs have yet to make a positive impact.
Wherever you want to put the majority of the blame, the combination of factors has produced a defense that has performed far below preseason expectations. Tampa Bay currently ranks 30th in the league against the pass (292 yards allowed per game), 30th in total defense (412.4 ypg) and 31st in points allowed (31.2 per game).
Andrew Astleford of FOX Sports Florida does not spare the secondary in trying to diagnose the Bucs’ problems:
So there are growing pains, and the defense should be a large concern. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are stars, but many faces around them deserve criticism.
Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron have disappointed. Defensive end Michael Johnson, a high-dollar addition in free agency, was good in the victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers with five tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble, but he has done little else. Cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks have looked vulnerable. Few escape blame.
The optimism among some that the Bucs could produce a top 10 defense under Smith this season was understood, but now it’s clear more caution should have been used when projecting the group’s potential. The underwhelming play of the unit creates more pressure for quarterback Mike Glennon and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, the men charged with babysitting the Bucs’ offense without its creator, Jeff Tedford.
Under Smith, the plan for the Bucs was to field a young, fast, hard-hitting defense. Through the first quarter of the season, the Bucs’ D has looked, more than anything, out of place. Perhaps they’re too young and moving too fast and trying to hit too hard — which would lead to missed assignments and blown coverages, over-pursuit and poor tackling technique.
In the secondary, a unit that had Darrelle Revis last season and finished in the middle of the pack in the NFL in passing defense is still adjusting to a new system and some new personnel. They’re not reminding anyone of Revis, Ronde Barber or John Lynch, but the group has talent (Goldson was a two-time All-Pro with the 49ers before coming to Tampa Bay) and a penchant for making big plays. All four starters have at least one takeaway this season. And if offseason acquisition Mike Jenkins can rediscover the form that made him a Pro Bowl corner in Dallas, the Bucs will really be a dangerous team to throw the ball against.
The Bucs may very well finish at the bottom of the NFC South this season, but there is time for the defense to climb up from the bottom of the NFL rankings. It’s only five games into the first season of Smith’s rebuilding project. There’s no reason for anyone’s hand to be hovering over the panic button.