Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Bucs' improved run defense gets test Sunday

TAMPA

The rule is as old as storming the castle. It is as simple as a stampede. It is as brutal as a punch in the mouth.

You stop the run.

After that, you stop the run.

A little later on, you stop the run.

Can anything be less complicated? For an NFL coach, for any NFL coach, it starts there. After all, if you let an opponent run you out of the stadium, it won't be long until everyone is going to try to run you out of town.

That leads us to the most improved, most satisfying part of this season's Bucs: the run defense. Finally, there are speed bumps and barriers and other hazards in the way of the opposing offense. Finally, the footprints seem to have been removed from the jerseys of the Bucs defense.

Of course, now comes the big test.

Now, Jamaal Charles and the Kansas City infantry come to town. Today, we get to see just how good this run defense is.

Through the first month of the season, the Bucs have been surprisingly good. They are fourth in the league, allowing only 73.8 yards per game and only 3.2 yards per rush.

Imagine that. For years now, the Tampa Bay defense has been a freeway for opposing running backs. The Bucs didn't penetrate, didn't punish, didn't tackle. Mostly, they played chase.

Over the past three years, the Bucs have finished 32nd, 28th and 32nd in the league against the run.

You know how teams preach holding opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in a game? Out of their past 52 games, the Bucs have done that only 11 times. They've given up 150 or more yards 27 times over that span. They've given up 200 or more 11 times. Individually, they've given up 24 100-yard games to rushers (and four others with 90-plus) over that span.

In other words, they've been featured in a lot of highlights by a lot of opposing runners.

No one is quite sure what got Jon Gruden fired after the 2008 season, but giving up 756 yards in the final four games didn't help. Granted, Gruden was an offensive coach, but it couldn't have helped the general feeling that the team needed to hit the reset button.

There were a lot of reasons that Raheem Morris was fired after last season. Among them was that opponents rushed for 270 and 251 in his last two games.

This year has been better. The Bucs lead the league in negative yardage plays with 41. Only one team, Washington, and one opposing runner, Alfred Morris, has had a 100-yard day.

What has happened here? The plan seems to be better, and the players seem better, and the progress seems better.

Start with the holdovers: Gerald McCoy and Mason Foster have never been better. And both rookies, linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron, have made an impact from Day 1. Consider the scheme, where the linebackers attack the line of scrimmage more and a safety is almost always in the box.

Granted, the Bucs pass defense hasn't been as impressive. Tampa Bay is still 32nd in the league there. As they say, however, one step at a time. Especially today against Kansas City. Who knows if the Chiefs will even try to pass? Charles ran the ball 33 times last week.

Who thinks he will run it fewer times today?

"I think (the improvement) is a collective effort of everything that happened in the offseason; from the coaching staff to the players to the overall mind-set of our team," McCoy said. "Our philosophy is, first of all, stop the run. If you stop the run, everything else will fall in line."

Can the Bucs keep it up?

Today's matchup against Charles will tell us a lot.

"I think he's great," McCoy said of Charles. "He's dynamic. He's a home run hitter. At any given moment, he will give you that play that will make everyone in the stadium stand up, even the home fans. One slip or one miss, and it could be a home run."

Like juggling dynamite?

"Yeah," McCoy said. "And it's sizzling. The whole game."

McCoy, of course, has been one of the huge factors in the Bucs' improvement. For two years, his career has been defined by injury and insults. Now he has been a dynamic player on a young defense.

"Man, it kind of makes me nervous how good this defense could be," McCoy said. "This could be that year-in, year-out defense that you never have to worry about.

"We can be scary good."

In the meantime, here comes Jamaal. Again and again.

Let's see if the Bucs can slow him down.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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