At season’s midpoint, Bucs defense needs more takeaways to right sinking ship

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) fumbles as he is hit by Bucs outside linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) in the second half. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) fumbles as he is hit by Bucs outside linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) in the second half. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
Published Nov. 8, 2018|Updated Nov. 9, 2018

TAMPA — Sometimes you can want something too much. That's the way it feels for a Bucs defense searching for ways to create takeaways and level out what has become the worst turnover differential in the NFL.

Their identity is one of a top-flight passing offense and a defense lacking in big-play ability. They move the ball at will, but have committed 21 turnovers. Combine that with just six takeaways — tied for the second fewest in the NFL — and it makes for an ugly minus-15 turnover margin that makes any game difficult to win.

There's no question there is frustration among defensive players. Last year's team had a minus-1 turnover margin, and their 26 takeaways were even between interceptions (13) and fumble recoveries (13).

Understanding that creating turnovers is a mixture of execution combined with a little bit of luck — a tipped ball here or a bounce there — they have held faith the turnover margin would even out. But at the midpoint of the season, that hasn't happened.

"We've got to force them," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "Takeaways is great, but if you're not getting that, you have to force that, and that's just what you've got to do."

The Bucs enter Sunday's home game against Washington with just one takeaway in their last five games: Isaiah Johnson's punt return fumble recovery in overtime of Tampa Bay's 26-23 win over the Browns.

For the Bucs last defensive takeaway, you have to go all the way back to a Week 3 Monday Night Football game against Pittsburgh, when safety Justin Evans intercepted Ben Roethlisberger 3:03 into that game. That makes for 24 straight quarters without a defensive takeaway.

A Washington team that is tied for the third-fewest turnovers (seven) in the NFL will present a difficult task.

"You talk it, you practice it, you preach it, you push it," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "And we're not going to stop doing that. That's our goal and objective and that's absolutely the truth. It's amazing how that's probably the No. 1 stat in ball. … Our players understand that more than sacks, more than rushing yards, more than anything else, you win the takeaway battle and you have the best chance to win the games."

Two years ago, the Bucs were also 3-5, then rattled off a five-game win streak — never a small task in the NFL — and a big part of that turnaround was a plus-9 turnover margin.

"In 2016, when we got on that run, we took the ball away more than any team in the NFL," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "So if we are going to make a run, that's going to have to be a part of it. And it starts with the mentality on practice, going after the ball from every level, D-line, linebackers, DBs."

The Bucs would need a much different turnaround this season. Two years ago, they had a minus-1 turnover margin and nearly twice as many takeaways (11). On their five-game win streak that followed, they made 14 takeaways — including 10 interceptions — and just five turnovers.

Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said that interceptions are down this season — slightly — and that running backs are protecting the ball better, which means there needs to be more emphasis on better coverage and getting more pressure on the quarterback.

"Quarterbacks in this league are playing at an all-time high level," Koetter said. "So what do we need to do? We need to cover tighter. We need to get more tipped balls. Pressure. The biggest turnovers in the NFL right now are coming on sack fumbles."

In the Bucs' season-opening win at New Orleans, they scored 14 points off turnovers, the difference in a 48-40 victory. Evans' fumble return for a touchdown gave the Bucs a 14-point second-quarter lead, and a Ryan Smith fumble recovery at the end of the third set up a touchdown drive that gave the Bucs a 24-point lead.

The Bucs clearly miss the ball-hawking abilities of middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who forced two fumbles that led to takeaways in the first two games, but has been out since Game 5 with a season-ending torn ACL. The Bucs defense has no turnovers in the 3 1/2 games Alexander has missed.

"(Linebacker) Lavonte (David) is one of the best, percentage-wise, in the league," Koetter said. "I would say that losing a player like Kwon hurts your defense, period, across the board. And other teams have injury situations, too, but losing a player like Kwon hurts you in all phases."

The fact that the Bucs have just one interception — and an interception rate of 0.34 percent (the league average is 2.38 percent) — suggests that pass defenders are lacking in coverage.

"It's not something I'm excited about, that's for sure, but we've got to catch the balls that are thrown to us," Duffner said. "There's some tips and overthrows that need to be ours. … We're relentless about doing it practice and we're anxious to see it carry over into the games."

During the part of practice open to media this week, defensive backs were running cone drills and catching passes thrown their way, then running scoop drills after beating a one-man sled. Duffner said there's been more emphasis on creating takeaways and players have been doing a better job of stripping the ball in practice.

"We need to start winning the turnover battle," Koetter said. "There's no secret about that. The 14-to-5 thing (from 2016), I don't know if that's going to happen. … You can't talk about five games, four games, everything starts with one game."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.