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New coordinator Jim Bates just as curious as Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans about his defense

The Bucs face a schedule against high-powered offenses that won’t be all-too-kind to new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

The Bucs face a schedule against high-powered offenses that won’t be all-too-kind to new defensive coordinator Jim Bates.

TAMPA

Here in the land of question marks, it is the one answer you want to hear. It is the one answer you need to hear.

How good will the Bucs defense be this year?

Not to alarm anyone, but Jim Bates would like to know the answer, too.

"I can't wait to find out," said Bates, the Bucs' defensive coordinator. "Right now, it's hard to tell."

After two months on the job, Bates has a few clues and a couple of hints, and a bit of flash here and a stack of film there. But answers? No, he doesn't have any of those. Not yet.

Is there enough muscle in the interior to stop the run? Is there enough heat on the edge to rush the passer? Are the linebackers tough enough? Is the secondary fast enough?

At this point, who can say?

"It's still early," Bates said. "We're throwing a lot at them. We're still trying to build a foundation. It's hard to say until we get into camp and see where they are mentally.

"The one thing I've enjoyed is their passion. Their attitude and their effort have been good. We have some speed. We're still trying to find some depth. Even some starting positions are wide open. We just have to see how we develop."

It sounds odd because in the old days, in 13 years worth of old days, everyone knew how the defense was going to be. Pretty much, it was going to be dominant. Most of the time, it was going to be relentless. Always, it was going to be the part of the team that Bucs fans trusted the most.

After all, this is a defensive town, and from Lee Roy Selmon to Derrick Brooks, excellence has been defined by the way the Bucs smothered opposing offenses. Defense was the main reason the Bucs won a Super Bowl, and defense was the reason the franchise transformed from a punch line to a contender.

This year? This year, the Bucs will be doing well to be in the top half of the league's defenses.

All of that is why it is difficult to take your eyes off of Bates as he bounds around the field, all volume and urgency. There is a familiarity to his energy, as if he has tagged-in from the departed Monte Kiffin.

"They're a lot alike," linebacker Jermaine Phillips said. "He talks about getting turnovers and sacks. For years and years, we heard that from one of our own.

"I wouldn't say it's a transition year. We still have a lot of tools in place. I think we can be a top five defense, a top 10 defense."

Those kinds of standards suggest Bates might be the most important Buc in the building these days. Because if the defense is going to be okay, then maybe the Bucs will too. And if not, a season could get ugly early.

The offenses are coming, you know. In the coming season, the Bucs will play 11 games against teams that finished in the top 10 in offense (eight of the top 10, three of them twice). They will play six or seven games (depending upon the appealed suspension of Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch) against 1,000-yard rushers. They will play 11 games against quarterbacks who passed for 3,000 yards, plus games against Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck. They will play against 11 receivers who had 1,000 yards (and six others who had at least 900). They will play only three games against teams with losing records.

Look ahead. Here comes Drew Brees and Matt Ryan and Brandon Jacobs and Steve Smith and Aaron Rogers and Randy Moss and all the rest.

"It's a challenge," Bates said. "Going in, this is as tough a schedule as any team I've ever been with."

Granted, the other teams look like trouble. It's this one, however, that is the real challenge for Bates.

Remember the collapse of the last month of last season? That Bucs defense didn't look in need of a tuneup; it looked in need of an overhaul. Now ask yourself this: Where exactly have the Bucs improved? Is the defensive line better? The linebacking corps? The secondary?

So is the Bucs defense a quick-fix project? Or is this the start of a two- or three-year plan where the Bucs start over and rebuild?

Say this for Bates. He has done quick fixes before. In 2006 he took over a Green Bay defense that had been 26th in the NFL, and it improved to seventh.

"We aren't going to go out there and call uncle," Bates said. "We're going to fight. We're going to battle every week. We're excited about accepting our challenge.

"What we have to do is find the new Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp. We have to have some people step up and take those roles."

How good will the Bucs defense be this year?

Oh, there are clues. Bates likes what he sees from Phillips at linebacker. Sabby Piscitelli has played well at safety. He says Ronde Barber, despite all the concerns, has played well. From what he has seen, he says Gaines Adams "can definitely be one of those elite-type pass rushers."

At this point, however, there should be tiny question marks attached to the helmets of the defenders. They are a puzzle, an enigma. They are Final Jeopardy.

Soon enough, we will all see the answer. Bates, too.

New coordinator Jim Bates just as curious as Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans about his defense 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 6:31am]
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