TAMPA — Bucs coach Raheem Morris says "stats are for losers."
But one statistic is a big reason the Bucs are 5-2: They have a plus-eight turnover margin, which ties them with the Redskins for second in the NFL behind the Steelers (plus-nine).
Tampa Bay had four interceptions in its win Sunday at Arizona, scoring touchdowns on two of them. In their five victories, the Bucs are plus-seven, winning the turnover battle each time.
"It's score, get the ball back — that's it," Morris said Monday. "That's your only goal. That's your only job. That's the only thing you're responsible to do. We never talked about holding a team to a certain amount of passing yards; we never talked about eliminating a receiver or stopping a guy. It was, 'Score and get the ball back.' When you get the ball back, you set up easy touchdowns for your offense, or you score, like we did (Sunday)."
The Bucs have forced 18 turnovers, including an NFL-best 14 interceptions. Defensive tackle Roy Miller said Morris always emphasizes in practice the need to "cash in on our (opportunities)." And linebacker Geno Hayes says the defensive players often get mad at themselves if they fail to take advantage of an opponent's mistake.
"There was a game when Aqib (Talib) almost had an (interception) and (Morris) was like, 'Hey, man, you should have made that play,' " Miller said. "And now, you see Aqib (Sunday) making those big plays (two interceptions). Rah does a good job of emphasizing that and making sure guys know that when there's a play, you have to make it. And (Sunday) was an ultimate showing of that."
Another key factor is how second-year quarterback Josh Freeman has taken care of the ball, throwing three interceptions (to eight touchdowns), including no picks in the past three games. It's a significant improvement over last season, when Freeman threw 18 interceptions in nine games.
"It's completely decisionmaking with him," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "He understands now when to get to the check downs, he's recognizing coverages, he's recognizing blitzes. All the things that go with experience and through hard work and understanding of protections and understanding of coverages.
"Last year it was him just trying to learn the plays more than anything. He'd maybe know what my progression might be, but he wasn't entirely sure what was going on with the other side of the ball. Now he has a much better understanding of that."
The Bucs' 10 turnovers are second fewest in the NFC, tied with their fellow NFC South leader, the Falcons (5-2), their opponent Sunday in Atlanta. And Falcons coach Mike Smith has certainly taken notice of what kind of havoc the Bucs defense is causing.
"Defensively, they're very opportunistic," Smith told Atlanta-area media Monday. "Four turnovers, that was a big difference in their game this past weekend. They're doing the things that you have to do to win football games in the NFL."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.