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Seahawks vs. Bucs Turning Point, Week 12: How Tampa Bay became a playoff contender

Bucs linebacker Lavonte David upends Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham and forces a fumble, one of three Tampa Bay takeaways in Sunday's 14-5 win. The Bucs' 20 takeaways is tied for third-most in the NFL. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

Bucs linebacker Lavonte David upends Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham and forces a fumble, one of three Tampa Bay takeaways in Sunday's 14-5 win. The Bucs' 20 takeaways is tied for third-most in the NFL. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

Sometimes, change is sudden. Often, though, it's a slower process, like cracks in a sidewalk. You don't see it as it's happening. There's no alarm, no announcement. One day, you happen to realize that something is different.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are different now. There's no denying that, not after they upset the Seahawks 14-5 on Sunday. They're 6-5, and very much in the playoff picture.

That idea was laughable three weeks ago when the team looked overwhelmed in a 43-28 loss to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football. Even the defensive coordinator questioned the effort, suggesting it "was not where it needed to be."

How did the Bucs turn their season around? And when?

The how: Tampa Bay is making offenses work harder to score points. Opponents are having to drive farther and are committing more turnovers.

The when: This is harder to define. A 17-14 win over the Panthers in Week 5 saved the season, but losses to the Raiders and Falcons showed that the Bucs had much to prove.

Linebacker Lavonte David, who forced a fumble Sunday, noticed a shift after the Thursday night game. He said that coach Dirk Koetter told the team to use that weekend to reflect, to look in the mirror. No pointing fingers. No worrying about what others need to do.

"Koetter came in Monday and got the thing rolling, guys buying in, guys being on time, being where they're supposed to be, doing everything the right way," David said. "When you do that, stuff off the field carries to on the field. When you trust guys off the field, you trust guys on the field."

That trust is showing up on the scoreboard, where in the past three games, the Bucs have allowed the Bears to score 10 points, the Chiefs to score 17 and the Seahawks to score 5.

Why are the Bucs allowing fewer points? More pressure from the defensive line? Better coverage from the secondary? Tampa Bay has improved in those areas, but it's executing a more fundamental concept: It's winning the field position battle. Over the Bucs' first eight games, opponents, on average, started at their own 30-yard line. In that span, Tampa Bay allowed 29 points a game, fourth most in the league.

Over the Bucs' past three games, they've shaved 7 yards off their opponents' average starting field position. The Bears started, on average, at their 25 and took possession inside the 20 five times. The Chiefs started at their 22, and while they took possession inside the 20 only once, they never started a drive beyond their own 30. The Seahawks started at their 21 and took possession inside the 20 four times. They barely spent any time in Tampa Bay territory, calling only 18 plays on the Bucs' side of the field.

Credit the offense's ability to sustain drives. Even if it isn't scoring points, it's flipping the field in its favor. Sometimes the best defense is an offense that keeps the opponent off the field. Credit punter Bryan Anger, too. His 25 punts inside the 20 are tied for fifth most and are the most by a Bucs punter since Josh Bidwell kicked 27 in 2008.

Early in the season, the defense, forced to protect a short field, had little room for error. In recent weeks, however, opponents have had to execute more plays, and they've made more mistakes. The Bucs have capitalized, recording a league-high nine takeaways over the past three weeks. Their turnover turnaround actually began in Week 5, when they recorded four takeaways against the Panthers. In the previous four games, they had two.

The defense also has limited explosive plays, particularly explosive pass plays. Through the first nine weeks, the Bucs allowed 23 passes of 25 or more yards, third most in the league. Over the past three weeks, they've allowed three, tied for sixth-fewest.

The difference, David said, is that the defensive is playing more cohesively, a product of coordinator Mike Smith's film review after the loss to the Falcons. Smith, instead of telling the team what he saw, asked players to tell him what they saw. Since then, players have been holding each other accountable, David said.

"Play as a unit, we lose as a unit, we're going to win games as a unit," he said. "That's what we've been trying to do. Playing as a family, playing as a whole. We count on one another."

Can the Bucs maintain their success when they head to San Diego next week to face Philip Rivers and the Chargers? A few weeks ago, you would have been right to be skeptical. Now? This is a different team. Anything's possible.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Seahawks vs. Bucs Turning Point, Week 12: How Tampa Bay became a playoff contender 11/28/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2016 5:33am]
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