They are no longer chasing runners across the goal line, which is a good thing. For most of last season, the Bucs looked like the second-fastest sprinter in one of those old Carl Lewis Olympic highlights.
The middle of their line no longer opens like the automatic sliding doors at your neighborhood grocery, which is even better. For most of last season, opposing running backs were guaranteed of a nonviolent result to their afternoon strolls through the center of the league's worst rushing defense.
The huddles no longer look like a game show where the contestants have no idea of the possible answers. Last year, when the preseason was dedicated into hammering square pegs into the round holes of then-coordinator Jim Bates' defense, the Bucs were more confused by what they were trying to do than the opposition.
When you remember all of that, yes, you would have to agree this year's Bucs defense looks better.
Still, you have to wonder. Will it be good enough?
Three partial games in, and there are some things to like about the Bucs defenders. They have tackled better, they have covered better, and they look more sure of their assignments. They look like better athletes, and they look like they are better coached. Remember that late-season surge that allowed the Bucs to climb all the way to 23rd — yippee — in the defensive rankings? They have looked better than that.
And still, if the Bucs are going to be better overall, they will have to get better than this.
Nothing new there. Around here, it has always been about the defense. And now, with the starting quarterback's thumb in bandages, with the backs still running in place, with the receivers finding their way, this team will be, too. If this team surprises anyone, it will be because of the defense.
So far, the defense is not enough. It is not mature enough, and it is not punishing enough, and it is not dominant enough. It does not have enough of a pass rush. It does not force enough turnovers. So far, it is not enough like the old Bucs defense to make you think this team will win enough. Grumble if you want, but "better than last year's disaster" is not the standard around here.
So far, there is enough there to make you hope, and there is enough there to allow you to worry.
It is a difficult thing to determine, the success of an NFL defense in practice games against mediocre opponents. In three games — and about four quarters worth of snaps — the Bucs' first unit has allowed only 13 points, which is good enough to win.
That said, there have been enough moments — Jacksonville's David Garrard leading his team 49 yards in a two-minute drill for a field goal, Kansas City's Matt Cassel leading his team on a 47-yard touchdown drive, Miami's Brandon Marshall running free through the secondary — to make you shake your head.
In other words, there is still a lot of proving to do.
Most of all, the Bucs need a better pass rush, especially from the edge. So far this preseason, the starters have only two sacks, one on a blitz by Quincy Black against Kansas City and the other when rookie Gerald McCoy chased Garrard out of bounds.
Overall, the pass rush showed more flashes against the Jags on Saturday, particularly up the middle where McCoy and Brian Price both showed some burst. There is a lot of athleticism there, and a lot of promise. Yeah, that's why the Bucs picked them 1-2 in the draft.
However, there has not been enough heat from the perimeter. Maybe that's why Cassel had a 108.4 ranking last week. Perhaps it's why Garrard hit 24 of 30 passes Saturday. That isn't unexpected either. The Bucs were tied for 26th in the NFL in sacking the quarterback last year. When it comes to the Bucs defensive ends, there isn't enough pressure, and there isn't enough proof.
Maybe that's why there haven't been enough interceptions, either. Barrett Ruud got the team's first of the preseason Saturday night at the goal line. For a coach such as Raheem Morris who preaches big plays and turnovers, that has to be better.
Don't get me wrong. Mostly, the Bucs defense has been good news this preseason. There is every reason to believe this defense will be better. There is every reason to suggest it can be pretty good.
Around here, pretty good has never been the standard.
That said, it's a pretty good stride in the right direction.