TAMPA — The Bucs defense has been much improved this season, and there's one area of the field in which it has had particular success: the red zone.
The Bucs have yielded touchdowns just 18.2 percent of the time after opponents get inside their 20-yard line, tops in the NFL. They have had 11 defensive opportunities inside the red zone and have allowed a touchdown only twice.
Perhaps it's no surprise the Bucs are making their mark there. It's an area of constant fine-tuning in practice, something that's necessary because the details of playing defense in the red zone are different than in the rest of the field.
"I definitely think it's (because of) execution," coach Greg Schiano said. "Everything speeds up down there. When you hit the 17-yard line, the field's twice as wide as it is long. So, the game changes. … We work enough at it. We need to perform well down there because we spend time practicing it."
The ability to bend but not break has kept the team in games that might otherwise have gotten out of hand such as Sunday's Cowboys game. When returner Jordan Shipley muffed a punt and Dallas took possession at the Bucs 24, the defense buckled down and the Cowboys advanced no farther than the 13, settling for a field goal.
A week earlier against the Giants, an interception gave New York possession at the Bucs 36. The Giants got to the 5, but the Bucs forced two incomplete passes and stopped a run for minus-1 yard to limit New York to a field goal.
GETTING CLOSE: CB E.J. Biggers' last game for the Bucs came in the 2011 finale. He entered training camp looking to build on his promising offseason performance, only to be injured in the first practice July 27.
The broken foot he suffered that day has kept him out since, but Biggers said he's now physically ready to play. If coaches see fit — they haven't told him yet — Biggers will return to the field Sunday against the Redskins.
The team's third cornerback the past two seasons, Biggers has had an important role. But will he be ready, given the new defensive system and all these weeks on the sideline?
He has no doubt.
"I kept myself in the film room, and the coaches kept me in all the meetings," Biggers said. "I did everything the team was doing. I just couldn't go on the field. It's about keeping your mind into it. (Former LB) Derrick Brooks told me that when he came out here one day. As long as you keep your mind at the speed of the game, your body is going to follow.
"It made a lot of sense. And hearing it from somebody like him and Ronde Barber and all these guys, that went a long way. It's easy for someone, when you get hurt, to take yourself out of everything and worry about it when you come back. But I stayed in it so whenever the team put me back out there, I would be ready to help the team."
MCCOY CLEARED: DT Gerald McCoy was not fined for a possible helmet-to-helmet hit on Cowboys QB Tony Romo. McCoy seemed to inadvertently make helmet-to-helmet contact when he sacked Romo and forced a fumble Sunday.
After the game, Romo said: "There was some other stuff. You probably could have got some helmet-to-helmet on me, I'm sure, on one of those hits. I'd be pretty shocked if it felt like that and it wasn't something there."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow him on Twitter at @BucsBeat.