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Is this what a good Bucs defense looks like? It’s been so long, it’s hard to recall.

John Romano: The Bucs got a solid outing from their defensive starters on Friday night, but they still have a long way to go before they’ll frighten NFL offenses.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Jordan Whitehead (31), linebacker Devin White (45) and outside linebacker Deone Bucannon (23) celebrate Whitehead's tackle during the first quarter of the preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on August 16, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Aug. 17
Updated Aug. 17

TAMPA — Over time, you learned to settle. You weren’t happy about it, but you accepted it.

Also, you spent a lot of games screaming into a pillow.

This was penance for Buccaneers fans. When you’re given 10 years of one of the greatest defensive dynasties the NFL has ever seen, there is going to be a cost down the line.

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In this case, it was Stylez G. White eventually replacing Simeon Rice.

It was Geno Hayes replacing Derrick Brooks.

And it was slipups replacing shutouts.

From 1996-2005, the Bucs never finished out of the top 10 in the NFL in points allowed. And from 2006-18, they rarely made it back again.

Which is what made Friday night’s preseason game against the Dolphins seem like a bigger deal than it really was. This was the first look at the schemes of new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles in person at Raymond James Stadium. It was the first hint of a possible new direction.

And, really, that’s all you’re looking for midway through August. Just a clue. Maybe a glimmer. Any sign that you won’t spend another season explaining to a child that turnovers really can go in both directions.

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So did you see enough?

If you’re the optimistic sort — or if a decade’s worth of bad defense has ruined your perspective — there were a few moments that might be construed as hopeful.

Bowles promised an aggressive, blitzing defense and Tampa Bay’s linebackers delivered the biggest moments in the first half.

Kevin Minter went untouched through the middle of the line and dropped a ballcarrier before he could even take a step, although a holding penalty wiped out the play. Later Shaq Barrett came around the right edge to drop the quarterback and, one play later, hit him again from the left side while lineman Patrick O’Connor finished him off for the sack.

By the end of the first half, the Bucs had held the Dolphins to six points on six drives, and that’s worth celebrating no matter how low you set the bar.

But there’s a fool’s gold element to the NFL preseason, and we’ve been bamboozled enough times to know better than to buy into what the scoreboard is telling us.

First of all, the Dolphins have not gotten the memo about this becoming a passer’s league. Miami quarterback Josh Rosen missed a handful of open receivers and the Dolphins dropped a couple passes. And that’s a kind way of saying Tampa Bay’s revamped secondary didn’t provide blanket coverage.

Rookie corner Jamel Dean dropped what should have been an easy interception in the second quarter, although he got a clutch pick in the end zone in the fourth. Deone Bucannon had a costly personal foul in the first half, and the defense overall had a ton of sloppy penalties.

And yet it’s not the mistakes that worry you most. It’s the plays that are completely missing.

You look at the roster and you wonder where the game-changing moments will come from. Yes, Ndamukong Suh has had an impressive career, but he’s 32 and was rarely spotted in anyone’s backfield last year. Jason Pierre-Paul was heaven-sent for the Bucs in 2018, but now he’s coming back from a serious neck injury at age 30. Everyone else is still waiting to have their best moments as a pro.

And that means it is way too soon to pass judgment on this group. Especially with Bowles redefining philosophies and schemes. Maybe Devin White is a star-in-the-making. Maybe Carl Nassib will thrive as a standup rusher. And maybe pushing the restart button will work wonders.

Because it’s hard to explain just how bad the 2018 defense was without using a Richter scale. Let’s see, the Bucs gave up more touchdowns than any defense in the NFL. They finished 27th in the percentage of turnovers forced. They finished dead last in opponent’s passing rating.

The good news is the Bucs will not be that bad again. Mostly because the odds say that level of awful is fairly rare.

But marginal improvement is not going to cut it. And that’s what Friday night felt like. A defense that is slightly better.

Around here, we should know the difference.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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