MINNEAPOLIS — The Bucs defense has done a decent job stopping the run, but the best way to travel with the football against this unit is to fly the friendly skies.
Tampa Bay has given up a hair-raising number of big plays in the passing game. In fact, the Bucs are 31st, next-to-last, in pass defense, allowing 323 yards per game.
At times, the only resistance between opposing quarterbacks and receivers is air.
Need proof? The Bucs have given up seven pass plays of 40 or more yards (tied for most in the league) and 28 of 20 yards or more (tied for fourth most).
Miscommunication, poor technique and overaggressiveness have played a role as well as a revolving cast of players.
Even coach Greg Schiano seemed confused about the confusion.
"I don't want to make an epidemic here, and it hasn't been a problem," he said. "I shouldn't say that. There have been spurts where it has been a problem, but it is not like that's our main issue.
"We just have to get it cleaned up. There was a little indecision. When you are playing against the level of athletes that they are in the secondary against the wide receivers, there is not a margin for error that big. If there is even a little indecision, they've got you. We've got to clean it up and cover people because we can."
In Sunday's 35-28 loss to the Saints, the Bucs allowed five passes of 20 yards or longer. The first typified their problems.
With the Bucs leading 14-0 in the first quarter, nickelback Brandon McDonald shadowed running back Darren Sproles as he went in motion. McDonald tried to communicate a signal to cornerback E.J. Biggers, who was lined up across from receiver Devery Henderson.
At the snap, both moved toward Sproles. Quarterback Drew Brees made the Bucs pay by hitting an open Henderson for 45 yards. The play highlighted a drive capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Marques Colston.
"They just capitalized on our mistake; a little miscommunication," Biggers said. "But it's nothing we can't fix. We'll get in the film room and get better each and every game."
The Saints also completed passes of 20, 30, 35 and 48 yards, the 20-yarder and 48-yarder going for touchdowns.
Adding to the problem is the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib, who has two games remaining on his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
The Vikings' Christian Ponder, coming off a season-low 58 yards passing with one touchdown and two interceptions in Sunday's 21-14 win against Arizona, said teams have taken advantage of the Bucs' aggressiveness in the secondary.
"With double moves and stuff, they try to bite on stuff and try to guess," the second-year quarterback out of Florida State said. "But they can also make plays that way. They're a very good defense. I think its going to be one of the better defenses we face, especially with how aggressive they play.
"But I think if you're going to take chances on trying to undercut a route, you're also going to take chances on giving up a big play."
Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said there is no common thread in the coverage breakdowns.
"They were different coverages each one and different guys involved," he said. "It looks like a compounded issue, but they're just individual instances. Still doesn't mean they didn't hit the passes on us, and that's got to get corrected."
What's more confounding is the team's run defense — third in the league at 76 yards per game — should put opponents in predictable pass situations and, thus, help the secondary.
But the Bucs have had almost no pressure on the quarterback. They have not had a sack since Sept. 30 and have only eight overall. Only the Raiders (seven), Eagles (seven) and Jaguars (five) have fewer. Tampa Bay is on pace for 21 sacks, two fewer than last season's league-worst 23. What's more, end Michael Bennett (four) and tackle Gerald McCoy (three) have accounted for seven of those sacks.
The well went dry after a season-ending knee injury to end Adrian Clayborn. Teams have begun to slide protection toward McCoy while Bennett is seeing his share of double-teams and running backs chipping on him.
"We've just got to come up with a better scheme," Bennett said. "We're trying to figure out a way to get me out there and get everybody in position."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]