TAMPA — Late in the first half last week, Carolina had the lead and the football at midfield when Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud recognized an opportunity against the Panthers' shotgun formation.
So Ruud switched the defense to a zone blitz look, one in which the Panthers would expect defensive end Tim Crowder to drop into coverage. Cornerback Ronde Barber lined up close to the line of scrimmage as if he were blitzing, and linebacker Geno Hayes showed pass rush up the middle.
Before the snap, Ruud changed the call to have Barber drop into coverage and Crowder rush Panthers quarterback Matt Moore. It was an easy call for Ruud, who had been presented that option earlier in the week by coach Raheem Morris.
It worked like a charm.
"Tim Crowder came free on a sack off a check that Barrett made," safety Tanard Jackson said. "He was unblocked. That was game-planned all week. We didn't know who was going to come free, but we said if we check to this in this formation, somebody is going to come free. It just so happened they squeezed the formation and left the end unblocked."
Disguising intentions on defense can work. But until Morris took over the play-calling from ousted coordinator Jim Bates three weeks ago, the Bucs did a poor impersonation of the defense that finished in the NFL's top 10 in 11 of the past 12 years.
The improvement the past two games has been dramatic.
Where the Bucs had given up 29.4 points per game through the first 10 contests, they've allowed 18 per game in the past two. Rushing and passing yards are down. Sacks are up.
Under Bates, the Bucs gave up 378.3 yards per game (27th in the league). In the past two weeks, they have given up 303 yards per game (ninth in the league during that stretch). Passing yards allowed have plummeted from 14th (209.4) to seventh (187.0).
The 17 sacks under Bates ranked 28th. The seven sacks the past two weeks would tie for third most in the league.
The Bucs have done even better against the run. After allowing 114 yards on 14 attempts to start the game at Carolina, they held the Panthers to 43 yards on 19 carries the rest of the game (a 2.3-yard average). That performance came a week after the Falcons gained just 75 yards on 26 carries (a 2.9-yard average).
The turnaround has Morris wanting to double as the defensive coordinator next year.
"To be honest with you, I might take it," Morris said. "But I've got to get to the end of the season to figure out that.
"I'm not shocked that it's going well. And that's not to be cocky or arrogant about it. I've got a real healthy belief in myself. I'm more shocked that it didn't work in the beginning."
To be fair, the Bucs failed Bates as much as he failed them. They didn't allow him to bring in a veteran who had played in his scheme. And the defensive linemen were ill-fitted to play a two-gap scheme, one where size and strength is valued over speed and penetration.
Much of what Bates deployed, in terms of matchup coverage, is still used. But players had a lot more confidence in Morris and the old scheme and had no trouble letting their coach know that.
"In the long run, I think it's going to be good for us," Ruud said. "It's just too bad it took us 10 games to get to it."
The biggest change is how Morris presents the defensive game plan and his ability to give Ruud ways to counter certain formations.
"If you're a coordinator, it's just one big chess match," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said.
Ruud has taken advantage of his newfound freedom, using variable fronts and coverages.
"I know against Atlanta, they used so many different formations, we probably checked to a different defense 15 to 20 plays," he said. "That's what (Morris) tells me early in the week. 'Hey, this is what I'm going to call. But if they come out in this, we don't want to be in this. So put us in a different defense.' "
Another common feature under Morris is the ability to use safeties in run support as part of an eight-man front without having to worry as much about coverage responsibilities.
"A lot of it is keys that came back to me when we made the change," Jackson said.
Morris said his inexperience — he has never been a head coach at any level before — probably was responsible for the delay in making the change at defensive coordinator.
"That's something maybe I'm learning," Morris said. "I don't know if I should've done it sooner because maybe I wanted to learn the fact that I should be doing it. … Some of the stuff I learned from the guys around here the first 10 weeks has been good stuff. It's not all been bad."
While Morris has taken more control of his team and the numbers look better, with a 1-11 record, his defense needs to help the Bucs produce wins over the final month of the season.
But at least the arrow is pointing up again on one side of the football.
"He said he was getting a little bored as a head coach, and it's good to see him back in the room, teaching like a position coach," Jackson said of Morris. "I'm sure he's having fun with it. If you know Raheem, you know he's having fun doing it."