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Tampa Bay Buccaneers look for answers for poor defense

TAMPA — Raheem Morris was clowning before practice one day last week when he strolled up to 6-foot-6, 350-pound defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth during stretching exercises.

"After this, we're going to do your conditioning test," Morris said before breaking into a big smile.

The NFL season is a test of endurance, but the Bucs' acquisition of the vagabond Haynesworth off waivers from the Patriots on Wednesday is the latest example of how far their defense has fallen off its pace since Morris took over the play-calling from fired coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games in 2009.

Tampa Bay ranks 29th overall (398.9 yard per game) in the league, allows 6.3 yards per play and ranks 31st in sacks with 12 despite investing a pair of first- and second-round draft picks on the defensive line over the past two years.

Those numbers are worse than the ones hung around Bates' neck at the time of his dismissal, when the defense ranked 26th overall (332.7), allowed 5.4 yards per play and had 17 sacks.

Morris' coaching style always has been hands-on. But is he losing his grip as defensive coordinator?

For now, at least, there's no reason to expect a change.

"When he took over when we played the Atlanta Falcons back in 2009, I think everybody saw we had the six-sack performance and it was like an immediate impact," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "But I can't sit here and say the play-calling is the reason we're not being productive on defense. I don't think that's a fair assessment at all. And I know how much time and effort he puts into it because I see that on a day-to-day basis.

"If people could see that, they'd say I feel like it's going to come around. I don't know why, but as an organization, we've been a notoriously better team the second half of the season. Whether it's been weather or whatever it is, I'm hoping that's the case again this year."

At 4-4 entering today's game against Houston (6-3 and first in the AFC South), Tampa Bay can ill-afford another loss before a trip to Green Bay next week, where it will be huge a underdog against the defending Super Bowl champion.

That's why the Bucs claimed Haynesworth, who will play for his third team in a year after running out of favor with the Redskins and Patriots amid complaints about a lack of effort.

The season-ending torn right biceps to Gerald McCoy, last year's No. 3 overall pick, precipitated the move for Haynesworth, who fills the void for a disruptive defensive tackle.

But the Bucs have other problems that have contributed to the demise of the defense. Tampa Bay's offense has failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter this season and has rarely held a lead.

"We're working too hard to get wins right now," Morris said. "We've got to find a better way to get wins, and it's more with a team concept rather than whether it's the offense's fault or the defense's fault. It's both of our faults. We've got to get off on defense. We've got to keep the ball on offense, and we've got to create turnovers and things of that nature.

"There's nothing wrong structurally on either offense or defense. When you miss on four touchdowns (in a game at New Orleans), it creates a problem for your defense. When you give up big plays on defense and give them 17 points, now that creates problems for your offense. So it all ties together."

It might be too simplistic to blame the collapse on the loss of McCoy, who will have missed 12 of his first 32 games as a pro by season's end. But a penetrating undertackle in Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme is critical. The Bucs also have not gotten good play from weakside linebacker Geno Hayes, who was benched last week at New Orleans.

"At the halfway point, I'm disappointed," Dominik said. "I think we all are disappointed. We want to be a better and more consistent football team, and that includes the talent I bring in. It's all across the board. I'm not trying to look for a scapegoat. I'm trying to look for answers."

It's rare for head coaches to also serve as defensive coordinators. Former Cowboys coach and current Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did it for part of a season in Dallas. Patriots coach Bill Belichick does it as well.

"Well, it's a little bit tougher, I think, because you still have to control game situations and you have to make those decisions, too," Phillips said. "But once you've done it for a while, I don't think it's a big problem."

As they say in football, sometimes it's not about the X's and O's, it's the Jimmys and the Joes.

"As your team gets better, you'll see equilibrium," Morris said. "Last year, as we got better on offense, we got better on defense. We started to finish strong. We were a hot team in football. That's got to happen again — right now — in these next eight games."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers look for answers for poor defense 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 7:50pm]
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