There, at the end of 2009, they looked a little bit stronger. Not great. Not dominant. But better.
Over the last six weeks of a lost season, they found themselves. They were a little bit meaner, a little bit tougher, a little bit more focused. If you didn't know any better, you might say they had learned to hit back.
Yeah, give it up for the defensive members of the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Coming down the stretch, they worked their way all the way back up to mediocrity.
Around here, a defense had never looked so good by looking average. In the best years of the Bucs, it would be an insult — not to mention a health risk — to refer to the defense that way. It would be ruthless, perhaps. It would be relentless. But average? Hardly.
For the Bucs of a year ago, however, average was a wonderful place to end up. The Bucs were wonderfully common. They were splendidly so-so. They were gloriously run-of-the-mill. Over their last six weeks, the defense was 15th in the league, and it looked as if it had found its way. It still gave up an average 344.3 yards a game over that span, and it felt as if that was worth celebrating.
Given the constant retreat of the first 10 weeks of the season, perhaps it was.
As it turns out, average depends on a team's viewpoint. If it is at the bottom, halfway up the mountain still looks like a pretty good trip. And for 10 games last season, the Bucs' defense was awful. The front line had gaping holes. The linebackers missed tackles. The secondary kept chasing receivers across the goal line.
And then, by the time you were ready to give up, it got better. Head coach Raheem Morris took over as defensive coordinator, and the Bucs began to play better. Over the last six weeks, the Bucs gave up 28 fewer yards a game rushing, 34 yards fewer overall, and best of all, 11.7 fewer points a game.
"I hate to talk about those last six weeks," Morris said. "I don't want to act like we did something heroic, because we didn't. We won two games in that period. But it was encouraging to see the guys come back and play with fire and get back to their core beliefs."
Can that late-season improvement continue into this season? Maybe.
"Those six weeks did a lot for us," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It put us where we knew we were going forward. The way our season started, you're looking for anything to salvage it. We were begging for something to come floating up from the bottom, and that was it."
And now comes another season, and another question: Will this Bucs' defense be good enough?
"This year, average won't be acceptable," Barber said. "I know what my expectations are, and the guys who have been here with the old defense, we know what we want to be. It's written all over the boards in the meeting rooms, and it's written in the pictures on the wall. It speaks for itself."
Looking back, last year's defense never really had a chance. The Bucs tried to force-feed players into a new system after they had been drafted for the old one, and the result was confusing.
"I don't want to put anyone down," linebacker Barrett Ruud said, "but we didn't know what we were doing. We were all confused. There was way too much gray area."
Said defensive end Stylez White: "Last year was embarrassing. Flat-out embarrassing. If we weren't better than that, I would have taken my lumps. But it angered me that we underachieved."
And this year? Can the Bucs return to the days of one top 10 defense after another?
"I don't see why not," Ruud said. "You always have to build from somewhere."
Why should you believe the defense will be better? Let's see. If the Bucs can get decent play at free safety, where Sabby Piscitelli struggled last year, the secondary looks fairly good. And after a year of experience, linebackers Quincy Black and Geno Hayes should be good enough. The question is across the defensive line, where rookies and second-year players will get most of the playing time.
Some questions linger. Can the Bucs stand up to the run, where they were last in the NFL despite the improvement of the last six games? Can the rookies hold up to a longer season against veteran offensive linemen who are 10 years older (and trickier)? And where is the pass rush going to come from?
White says he knows the answer to the last question.
"I guarantee you I'm going to put some heat on the quarterback," White said. "I take pride in that. I want to be great at it. So put the pressure on me. I embrace it. I won't shy away from it."
Bottom-line question. Can the Bucs be a respectable defense? Put it this way: If they're going to have a respectable season, they had better be. Around here, the defense has always had higher standards than the offense. Usually, it has had better results.
"I know we're young," Barber said. "You can temper expectations if you want to. But I expect us to be a defense that doesn't give up chunks of yardage, that doesn't give up big plays and that gets off the field on third down."
Does that mean dominant? No, the Bucs are playing too many young players for that. Does it mean great? No, there was a reason the Bucs were 3-13 last year. Does it mean smarter? Stronger? Better? It should.
Most of all, it should mean a darn sight better than average.