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Forget Bruce Arians, the Bucs need Todd Bowles to be their miracle worker

John Romano: Tampa Bay’s defense has been in a slump. For 10 years. If you have any hope for success in 2019, you need to believe in the new defensive coordinator.
When Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles held the same job in Arizona, the Cardinals were ninth in the NFL in takeaways, and 12th in sacks during those two seasons.. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 31

TAMPA — The job is not necessarily thankless. It’s high profile, and it does pay well.

It just seems unfair to include miracles as part of the job requirement, and yet it feels like that’s where we’re at when it comes to the position of defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers.

Let’s see, you should fix a defense that gave up close to 30 points a game last year.

A defense that’s allowed more combined points than any NFC team in the last decade.

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A defense that has chewed up and spit out a half-dozen coordinators in those 10 years.

Welcome aboard, Todd Bowles!

The good news is Tampa Bay’s latest coordinator arrives with a solid reputation. In both of his seasons as a coordinator in Arizona under Bruce Arians, the Cardinals had top-10 defenses.

Players swear by him, and opponents praise him. His defenses play fast and aggressive, which haven’t been common descriptions in Tampa Bay for quite some time.

So what’s a realistic expectation in 2019? Can the Bucs progress enough to be an average defense? Or even — Gasp! — a good defense?

Bowles isn’t ready to go down that road just yet.

“We’re not into predictions,’’ he said. “We’ll let that take care of itself.’’

If you’re looking for reasons to believe, here’s three reasons why Bowles might be able to fill the role of miracle worker in Tampa Bay in 2019.

Todd Bowles is overseeing a defense with lots of young players like rookie cornerback Jamel Dean (35) in the secondary. MONICA HERNDON | Times

1. The distance is not as great as it might appear.

It’s true the Bucs were one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2018. Only Oakland gave up more points than Tampa Bay.

But the Bucs were a better defense at the end of the season than they were at the beginning. Maybe it was young players growing up, maybe it was a more effective pass rush in November and December, maybe it was changes in play-calling and personnel.

Whatever reason you subscribe to, the Bucs were giving up 34.6 points a game when defensive coordinator Mike Smith was fired in mid-October. Under interim coordinator Mark Duffner, the Bucs only gave up 26.4 points a game, which was much closer to the league average of 23.3.

If you believe the second half of 2018 was more indicative of the talent in the defensive huddle, then you can make a case that Tampa Bay does not necessarily need to make a quantum leap.

2. The offense should be an ally and not an enemy.

It’s not entirely untrue to blame Tampa Bay’s 5-11 record on the porous defense, but there’s a little more nuance involved.

While the Bucs put up a lot of yards and an above-average number of points, they were not an especially efficient offense. Tampa Bay led the NFL with 32 giveaways, which adversely effects the defense.

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For instance, opponents started with a better average field position against the Bucs, in part because of the turnovers. Only eight defenses were saddled with worse field position than Tampa Bay in 2018.

Arians has vowed to improve the running game and cut down on Jameis Winston’s interceptions this year, which could do as much to help the defense as any other change.

In Todd Bowles four seasons as head coach of the New York Jets, his defenses ranked fifth, 21st, 18th and 21st in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

3. Bowles has what ails Tampa Bay.

Along with the overall defensive malaise in 2018, the Bucs were not particularly adept at splash plays. Tampa Bay was 19th in the league in sacks, and 22nd in takeaways.

If you want to blame a lack of playmakers, I won’t stop you. And if you want to point out a lot of those same players will be back in 2019, you would be correct.

But Bowles is installing a system that will include more blitzing and more man-to-man coverage. The idea is to be more aggressive and, theoretically, put skills to better use. It will probably include more risk than 2018, but the Bucs don’t have a lot to lose.

And Bowles’ defenses had success in this system when he was the coordinator in Arizona in 2013-14. The Cardinals were ninth in the NFL in takeaways, and 12th in sacks during those two seasons.

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Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich suggested Bowles does a better job of disguising schemes than any defensive coach in the NFL. Of course, there will be a learning curve involved for the Bucs.

“We work on different things every day, work on different disguises every day, trying to make everything look the same,’’ Bowles said. “That, in itself, is difficult with young guys. But at the same time, they start to understand it and understand football the way we think as coaches.’’

Does that mean the Bucs will be a better defense in 2019? I would certainly think so. Will the Bucs actually be a good defense? That’s asking a lot. Will the Bucs actually make you recall the days of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber?

Well, now that would be a miracle.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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