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John Romano: Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoping to see payoff after investment in run defense

TAMPA

You once put your faith in Ellis Wyms.

That was about two dozen 100-yard rushing games ago.

In the years that followed, you trusted Kevin Carter. And then Jovan Haye. And, later, Ryan Sims. For five seasons, you have waited for some combination of defensive tackles capable of leaving an impression, or at least a bruise, on an opposing running back.

So, tell me, is your faith renewed today?

After watching Tampa Bay's defensive front completely shut down Miami's running game on Saturday night, do you have a sense that things are getting better?

Because, honestly, they couldn't get much worse.

The Bucs have been in the bottom half of the NFL in run defense for five consecutive seasons, including finishing 28th last season and 32nd the year before.

This is why the Bucs have invested draft picks in defensive linemen like never before. In the past three drafts, they have chosen defensive tackles in the first, second and third rounds, and defensive ends in the first, second and fourth rounds.

"When (Warren) Sapp and those guys were younger, they grew up together and eventually became a Super Bowl-caliber defensive line," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We have the ability to do that here."

At least, that's the plan. It wasn't until Sapp's third season that Tampa Bay began to show signs of what was to become the most dominant defense in the NFL.

The Bucs were 15th in run defense in his rookie season, and 22nd in his next season. After that, came a string of top-10 finishes against the run.

So is it too much to expect McCoy and Brian Price and others to turn the corner so soon in their careers?

"My expectations are for us to play the hell out of the running game so we can get teams in throwing situations so we can get back there and light them up," defensive line coach Grady Stretz said. "We've got a young front four and a new middle linebacker and we're just going get these guys flying around.

"We're going to fly off the football and play fast, physical and violent."

Along with all the new faces in the huddle, the Bucs brought in two new assistant coaches for the defensive line this season. Keith Millard is working on the pass rush, and Stretz was hired away from Arizona State to focus on the run defense.

And that begins with the two defensive tackles and new middle linebacker Mason Foster.

Defensive ends get paid big bucks to chase sacks, and defensive backs are measured by interceptions, but it's often the guys doing the dirty work in the middle of the line that makes everyone else's job a little bit easier.

With such an influx of young players on the line, the Bucs are taking the opportunity to make some changes in techniques from previous years. For the average fan, the most noticeable differences will be tighter alignments and players keeping their shoulders more square to the line of scrimmage. The idea is attack more and react less.

"It's violence, but it's a controlled violence," defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "I like to talk about it like a dance. If one person gets out of line in this dance, then the running back is going to be hitting his head off the goal post. In a gap defense like we have everybody has to play perfectly or else."

The "or else" was a familiar sight in recent years. Too many running backs found too many holes, and that's why there's a bunch of 23-year-olds in the middle of the defense this morning.

Consider there were 10 teams, other than the Bucs, that gave up more than 120 yards rushing per game last season. Those 10 combined for a 58-102 record.

In other words, the Bucs were an anomaly at 10-6. They had a defense that somehow thrived despite not controlling the line of scrimmage.

Tampa Bay cannot plan on that kind of ratio again in 2011. You depend on the run defense to keep opponents from controlling the clock, as well as field position. It also forces more passing situations, which inevitably leads to more turnovers.

Through three preseason games, the run defense has been spectacular (Miami), decent (Kansas City) and awful (New England).

That variation might be expected with so many young players, but the Bucs say that excuse isn't good enough.

"I'm not going to put numbers on it," Stretz said, "but I want to dominate the run game."

John Romano: Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoping to see payoff after investment in run defense 08/28/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 28, 2011 11:34pm]
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