TAMPA — The Bucs have forced a league-high nine turnovers. They are second in the NFL in points scored off turnovers. Tampa Bay has broken opponents' spirits with three momentum-halting defensive touchdowns in four games, tied for most in the league.
And none of it is by coincidence.
The defense has long had a reputation for being opportunistic. The front office has stacked the roster with unique athletes who possess a unique ability to find the football. Then those skills are further enhanced through constant emphasis and development.
The result: plays such as end Gaines Adams' 45-yard interception return at Chicago punctuated by a nimble leap into the end zone. Then there's linebacker Barrett Ruud's end zone interception on a pass intended for Bears running back Matt Forte, strong-arming the ball away from the rookie in midair.
"They refine (ball skills) here and make it a priority," safety Tanard Jackson said. "I don't think every defense in this league makes it a priority to score like we do. It's been like that for years before me, and I think it'll be like that for a long time to come."
Their reputation precedes them. Just ask others.
"Obviously, you have to have instincts," said coach Mike Shanahan, whose Broncos host Tampa Bay on Sunday. "They really seem to find guys who fit into their system and have those instincts pretty consistently.
"Obviously, you have to be a good judge of talent. You have to have guys who fit into your system and put them in spots where they can make plays."
This season, such game-changers are coming at a furious clip.
The Bucs' three defensive touchdowns are two shy of the team record set in 1981, 2000 and 2002. Adams, cornerback Phillip Buchanon (interception) and strong safety Jermaine Phillips (fumble recovery) are on the board. With 12 games remaining, the potential for new heights exists.
If that happens, it won't just be the defense that benefits.
"There's no bigger momentum swing than a defensive touchdown," Jackson said.
Defensive scores "really deflate (an offense) and put pressure on a team's defense," running back Warrick Dunn said. "After something like that, you start feeling pressure to be perfect."
It should surprise no one, then, that the defense has been challenged to score more by Jon Gruden, an offensive-minded coach who spends the majority of his time focusing on that side of the ball. He has done it before. In 2002, he dared the defense to turn in nine touchdowns. Turns out, it reached that in its final game: Super Bowl XXXVII.
Even today, turnovers are repeatedly emphasized. During film sessions, players are "called out" for not raking at the ball during gang tackles. The topic is practically unavoidable.
But are the actual plays more a result of players' abilities or coaching savvy that positions players to make things happen?
Actually, it's both.
"I think it's instincts," Adams said. "You have to have a feel for the ball. You have to have some type of skills. Plays aren't just going to happen."
But, as rookie cornerback Aqib Talib indicated, "You have to have the skill, but the coaches play a big part, too. They're the ones that put you in position.
"When you see Gaines Adams 20 yards downfield, he didn't just drop 20 yards all by himself. (Defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin told him to drop 20 yards downfield and that put him in position.
"But not every defensive end would have caught that ball, either. It goes both ways."
There's no dispute when it comes to this: These guys don't consider the job done until the ball is theirs.
"(Turnovers) separate good defenses from great ones," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "You can be No. 1 in yards allowed and all that stuff. But if you're making scores during the game, getting four turnovers, (teams will say), 'Wait a minute. These guys are ballhawks down in Tampa.' Do we want to shore up the running game and the passing game? Of course.
"But what you really want is to make big plays on the ball."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.