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Bucs defense must be better than mediocre

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, left, celebrates his rushing touchdown against the Bucs with Riley Cooper. Foles also throws three touchdowns in the 31-20 win.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, left, celebrates his rushing touchdown against the Bucs with Riley Cooper. Foles also throws three touchdowns in the 31-20 win.

The offense is broken down by the side of the road. Smoke is coming from under the hood. The emergency flashers are on. Soon, the tow truck will arrive.

But what about the defense?

The offense is a collection of misfit toys. A rookie is playing quarterback. A discard is playing running back. A journeyman is at receiver. As a result, the end zone always seems about 3 miles away.

But what about the defense?

That's the thing about watching the Bucs. The offense is such an eyesore that, by contrast, the defense doesn't look that bad. After all, the offense is the worst in the NFL. The defense? It's merely mediocre.

Just asking, but shouldn't it be better than that?

Throughout the season, it has been like this. The offense spews such trouble that the defense gets a pass. But the truth is that the defense hasn't been as good as it needs to be either.

Remember the 10-minute drive the 49ers managed with the game on the line last week?

Remember the second half at Seattle, when the Seahawks turned on the jets?

Remember the Eagles' Nick Foles, All-American?

And on and on it has gone. For a defense with so many talented pieces — Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Darrelle Revis, Mark Barron — it has given up too many yards, too many points, too many big plays.

"To be a championship team, we need to be a championship defense,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said last week. "I think we've made progress. We have two games left, and in all the major statistical things that you judge the defense by, we're kind of in the middle of the road; some just outside the top 10, some in the middle of the pack, 15 or 16.

"We're a couple of pieces away, I think, from being a dominant defense. We have some good players; some really good players. We'll just keep working at it.''

When Schiano talks about missing a couple of pieces, it causes the mind to race. A left defensive end? Another linebacker? A pure pass rusher? Someone? Anyone?

Consider the numbers:

• In yardage allowed, the Bucs are 13th in the 32-team league.

• In points allowed, they are tied for 13th.

• Against the run, they are 15th.

• Against the pass, they are 15th.

• In sacks, they are tied for 20th.

In other words, the Bucs defense has been sort of … average. To a degree, you can consider it a work in progress because last season, it was awful. But with a rebuilt secondary, shouldn't it be better.

Remember, this is the unit that didn't close the door against New York, or New Orleans, or Arizona. This is the unit that gave up 31 points in three straight weeks to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Carolina. The last time the Bucs gave up more than 30 in at least three straight weeks, Raheem Morris was coaching. The time before? Sam Wyche, back in '94? The time before that? Leeman Bennett, back in '86.

Again, we are talking about the Bucs defense. A key player didn't pout his way out of town on defense. A lineman didn't come up with MRSA on defense. The team hasn't been devastated at one position, such as running back, on defense.

In some ways, the Bucs are trying to match a familiar blueprint to defensive success. On the Bucs' best teams, they had a force at every level. Warren Sapp was on the line, and Derrick Brooks was at linebacker, and John Lynch and Ronde Barber were in the secondary.

The difference? That defense spent nine consecutive seasons in the NFL's top 10. Much of the time, it allowed Tampa Bay's bad offenses to win.

In other words, if the Bucs are going to be better next year, this defense needs to take another step or three toward that one.

"I think it can be developed within as well as outside,'' Schiano said. "I think we have some really fine young prospects in our building right now. (Defensive end) Will Gholston is a prime example. Six weeks ago, you're not talking or thinking the way you are about Will right now. This is such an instant society, but sometimes, you've got to develop guys.''

A moment later, Schiano is raving about Barron, the much-improved safety from a year ago.

"I thought he was a good player a year ago,'' Schiano said. "I thought he was a really good player this year. He's a physically dominant tackler. I think he's going to be as good as he wants to be. He's a driven player. He's a smart player; physically gifted.''

Then there is McCoy, who at times has been unblockable. And David, the team's best defender. And Revis, who hasn't been quite himself but still might be the best cover corner the Bucs have ever had.

Along the way, however, there are four wins.

That's not enough.

The defense isn't, either.

Bucs defense must be better than mediocre 12/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 21, 2013 8:50pm]

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