The Bucs are a top-five defense in the NFL. You can look it up. That ranking may seem like a misprint. Fake as a Colts punt.
Except it's true.
Let's slap our foreheads in unison. Only the Jets, Broncos, Titans and Seahawks have allowed fewer yards per game than Tampa Bay this season.
Wait, you say. Rookie Marcus Mariota shredded the Bucs D like lettuce. Blake Bortles passed for 400 yards and four touchdowns against it. How could this be?
Well, perhaps even more shocking, the Bucs are fifth in the league in yards allowed per play with a 5.1 average. That stat carries even more weight. Only the Broncos, Jets, Panthers and Eagles — three division leaders and a second-place team ‑— are better.
"Your stats, your record, that's who you are," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "What else can you go by? But for us, it is a little bit bigger than that. We haven't played our best defense here. It's as simple as that. If you look at total yards and some of those things, how everybody else judges the league a little bit, you can feel good about some of the things we've done and we do."
But even Smith admits the No. 5 defensive ranking after five games is a bit of fool's gold. Cubic zirconia.
That's because what matters is points allowed per game, where the Bucs rank 31st at 29.6. Only the Bears (29.8) have allowed more. Other mileposts, such as winning on third down and limiting scoring in the red zone, are more important, Smith says.
"But the things we need to do better, yes, I'm going to go to the points," Smith said. "I'm going to go to takeaways. To third down conversions. Those are the things that will really help us win football games. We have to get better at that and we will. We're pointed in this (right) direction and that's what we would like to see. But right now, we're just jockeying for position. We have a long ways to go and I think every defensive guy would tell you that."
Of course, there are reasons behind every number in the NFL. The Bucs' turnovers on offense have put their defense in bad positions. You can take away 14 points from two interceptions thrown by Jameis Winston that were returned for touchdowns. That's not the defense's fault, but adds nearly a field goal per game to the stat.
Other turnovers have given opponents short fields, when they weren't required to sustain long drives for scores, and that skews the yardage average.
So maybe the defense is getting better. Smith is right. There is a long way to go. But the Bucs defense hasn't ranked this high through Week 6 since they were No. 1 in 2005 and finished as the best in the league. The Bucs' 15 sacks matches the output of the Super Bowl XXXVII champion defense at the same point.
They have two Pro Bowl-quality players in tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. End Jacquies Smith is among the league's sack leaders since the middle of last season. Cornerback Johnthan Banks sees playmakers all over.
"Most definitely. I look around at our guys," Banks said. "I'm not even going to name Gerald or Lavonte. You look at Jacquies, he's in the top of the league in sacks. You look at George (Johnson) and the plays he's made. Look at Kwon Alexander. Look at those guys, especially Bradley McDougald, the plays he's making and the things that he's done. You've got me, Mike (Jenkins), Tim (Jennings), Vern (Alterraun Verner). … You look at these guys' history and the past, it's telling you we have a top-five defense and we can be the best defense in the league if we go out and put it together."
Until then, the Bucs will have to rely on the scoreboard to let them know how good they are.
"I mean, the yardage sounds good and all that," Verner said. "But at the end of the day, it's wins, losses and the points on the board."