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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Strong finish makes Bucs NFL's No. 1 third-down defense

Bucs defenders try to take down Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) during the fourth quarter on Sunday,.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Bucs defenders try to take down Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) during the fourth quarter on Sunday,.

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January

It's small consolation after barely missing the playoffs, but a strong showing in Sunday's win against Carolina gave the Bucs defense the title of being the NFL's best on third downs for the 2016 season.

It's a remarkable turnaround under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Smith, considering the Bucs ranked 30th in third-down defense in 2015, allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of the time.

The Bucs went into Sunday's game second behind Miami, but after holding Carolina to a 4-for-15 game on third downs, they lowered their season total to 34.4 percent, jumping ahead to first among NFL defenses.

Tampa Bay's defense hasn't finished even in the top half of the NFL in third-down conversions since 2008, and the percentage is the Bucs' best since 2003. For comparison, the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl team allowed opponents to convert 33.6 percent of their third downs.

If there's a goal for next year, it's continued improvement, and going after the franchise record of 31.7 percent, set in 1998 on a defense loaded with future Hall of Famers.

[Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2017 12:02pm]

    

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