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Return to reality: It's still about the defense

From left, linebackers Barrett Ruud, Derrick Brooks and Cato June — along with the rest of the defense — will be relied on heavily for the Bucs to succeed.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times (2007)

From left, linebackers Barrett Ruud, Derrick Brooks and Cato June — along with the rest of the defense — will be relied on heavily for the Bucs to succeed.

Okay, summer's over.

Time again for the Bucs defenders to play out of their heads.

I know, I know. During the past few months, you have had a simply marvelous time daydreaming about this concept called "offense." You have imagined touchdowns and fireworks and extra points. Lots of extra points.

You spent weeks turning Brett Favre into a chew toy, didn't you? A stray rumor, and even though you knew better, you imagined Chad Johnson as your own personal bobblehead. You have nearly worn through a web of worry beads from fretting about Jeff Garcia's rust and Joey Galloway's timing and Warrick Dunn's age.

Around here, everyone knows how it works. You spend an entire offseason thinking about offense, talking about offense, dreaming about offense.

And then the regular season begins, and just like always, everyone looks to Derrick and Ronde and the defensive guys to do the heavy lifting.

Because, really, what choice is there?

It sounds like the lyrics to an old song by now, but once again, the season is in the hands of the defense. Of course it is. Just like last year and the year before and the year before that and on and on since they used to refer to Monte Kiffin as "the Kid."

No matter who the quarterback is, no matter how the offense struggles, seasons are always in the hands of the Bucs defense. You know it, I know it, and most of all, the defensive players know it.

This is who the Bucs are, and this is what their followers have learned during the past dozen years. We might be fascinated by conversation about the offense, but really, it's like coal miners talking about exotic beaches. Offense is someone else's sports car zipping past you, but defense is the house in which you live.

Take today's opener against the Saints, for instance. The world seems to have fallen in love with the Saints, the new flavor of the day among the national prognosticators. Some of it is that New Orleans has paid more attention to its defense (as opposed to years past, when it paid none), but most of it is the talent crammed into that offensive huddle: quarterback Drew Brees and running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush and tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receiver Marques Colston.

Can the Bucs handle all of that?

Depends on the defense.

Can the Bucs make a playoff run?

Depends on the defense.

Can the Bucs finally defend an NFC South title?

Depends on the defense.

And so it goes. The defense, second in the league last season, is supposed to answer every question. The ones about the calendars and the ones about the offense and the ones about the tougher schedule.

Because, really, what choice is there?

For the defense, there should be something familiar about the pressure. Two other times in the past five years, the Bucs have tried to defend a division title. Both times, the defense could have been better.

Oh, it's hard to pin the 2003 debacle on the defense alone. That was the most dysfunctional of seasons, what with the general manager jumping ship and the big-name wide receiver being pushed.

But back in '03, the defense could have been better, too. Officially, it only slipped from first to fifth, but there were large concentration lapses, too. Leads were blown. Receivers ran free. Sacks and turnovers went down. Six opponents scored more than 20 points against the Bucs, and they lost all six.

But that was nothing compared with '06, when the Bucs fell from first in the NFL to 17th. There were other things going on that year, too, that were tough to overcome, such as rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. But that was the year Simeon Rice and Booger McFarland disappeared and the pass rush along with them. Ten opponents scored more than 20, and Tampa Bay lost nine of them.

It isn't hard to figure out. In Gruden's three seasons in which his team won division titles, the Bucs defense has allowed 28 fewer yards and 3.7 fewer points and has forced 33 more turnovers than in his three losing seasons.

So what has to happen this season? Gaines Adams and Tanard Jackson have to play older, but Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber can't. Barrett Ruud and Jermaine Phillips have to continue to progress, but Jovan Haye and Greg White cannot regress. There has to be pressure. There have to be turnovers. There has to be mayhem.

Along the way, it would help if the offense won a game or two itself. But around here, you can't count on that. Around here, what people have come to count on is defense.

Because, really, what choice is there?

Playoffs vs. Pratfall

In Jon Gruden's three seasons that ended in division titles ('02, '05 and '07), the defense has been more solid than in his three losing seasons ('03, '04 and '06). A look at the numbers:

Average wins 10.7 5.3
Points allowed 15.4 19.1
Yards allowed 269.7 297.7
Sacks 37.3 35.3
Interceptions 64 47
Fumbles rec. 39 33
Turnover diff. +39 -19
Opponents' QB rating 65.71 79.5

Return to reality: It's still about the defense 09/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 12:37pm]
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