Sunday's 31-24 victory over the Falcons offered a first glimpse at the Bucs' new defense under coordinator Mike Smith, and while the defense had no takeaways in the win, it was stout against the run, stellar in the red zone and came up with the stops when needed to seal a crucial victory.
One more thing that stands out about the Bucs defense Sunday was a tendency to lean heavily on the defensive starters -- five played all 65 snaps against Atlanta, and another four had a combined 34 plays off. That means the top nine defensive players were on the field for 94 percent of the plays -- the comparable stat for the Falcons was 84 percent, giving the top players nearly three times as many plays off.
The Bucs essentially used 13 players for most of the game, with Will Gholston and Noah Spence combining for 75 snaps at end, and strongside linebacker Daryl Smith and fifth cornerback Alterraun Verner, who replace each other in the base and nickel packages, combining for 54. The remaining nine defensive players that dressed Sunday combined for 35 total snaps.
Some of this could be very circumstantial -- a closely contested game on the road, with limited leeway for subbing out starters, and a new defensive scheme where coaches may initially have confidence in a smaller number of players as understanding it at a high level. Gerald McCoy took only six plays off on defense, and Robert Ayers seven, with both working in both the base and nickel defenses. In the starting secondary, the only sub was for safety Chris Conte, and much of that was related to an injury that briefly sidelined him.
What's also curious, if from only one game, is that Smith's defense appears to put much more of the tackling burden on the linebackers -- Kwon Alexander had a career-high 17, the most for any Bucs player in any game since the 2009 season, and Lavonte David had eight, including three tackles for loss.
By comparison, the Bucs defensive linemen had six tackles total out of the team's 55, an impressively low number, even with the Falcons only running the ball 22 times (36 percent). Compare that to Lovie Smith's first game in 2014 -- a 20-14 loss to the Panthers, who had a more even run/pass split -- in that game, defensive linemen had 23 tackles, more than the linebackers.
If the linebackers are to be even more so the primary tacklers -- Alexander and David also had five of the defense's eight tackles for loss -- then those two are going to put up prolific numbers, even compared to impressive tackling totals last season.
As far as formation and alignment, the Bucs were in their nickel defense (with five defensive backs) on 38 of 65 snaps, which works out to 58 percent, so strongside linebacker Daryl Smith was only on the field for 27 plays. Verner had the same 27, playing only in the nickel, with Jude Adjei-Barimah getting about half that in the same role.
On offense, the Bucs leaned more on a three-receiver look -- receivers had a combined 163 snaps in 64 plays (that's 2.55 receivers per play) with tight ends getting 93 snaps (1.45 per play), some of those as fullbacks. As expected, there was a big dropoff in playing time between the top three receivers -- Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Adam Humphries -- and backups Russell Shepard (6 plays) and Cecil Shorts (2). Doug Martin got 44 snaps to Charles Sims' 20, with Martin getting touches on 23 snaps and Sims just seven.
Special teams? Safety Keith Tandy had the most snaps of any player with 23, while three defensive backups -- LB Adarius Glanton, Josh Keyes and Josh Robinson -- got 22 snaps each, with Glanton getting a team-best two special-teams tackles.