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The feel-good portion of the Bucs season has ended. Now it’s time to face reality

John Romano: Bruce Arians could turn Jameis Winston into Ben Roethlisberger in 2019 and it still may not matter. Not if the Bucs defense doesn’t improve dramatically.
 
Ndamukong Suh had better be a difference maker for the Bucs in 2019. The free agent replacement for Gerald McCoy needs to a presence on the defensive line but the Bucs are also hoping his take-no-prisoners approach rubs off on teammates.
Ndamukong Suh had better be a difference maker for the Bucs in 2019. The free agent replacement for Gerald McCoy needs to a presence on the defensive line but the Bucs are also hoping his take-no-prisoners approach rubs off on teammates. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2019

TAMPA — You knew this day was eventually going to come.

Faith or delusion can only get you so far. And, in this case, that’s probably third down.

No matter how much you believe Jameis Winston will thrive under Bruce Arians, no matter how excited you are about the new placekicker, no matter how much you’ve bought into the idea of Ronald Jones as a gamebreaker, there is a reality that cannot be easily ignored.

The 2018 Buccaneers were a horrible defensive team.

And with a new season upon us, there’s no hiding from that.

Winston is clearly the most important player on the roster, and this season will be an ongoing tryout for his next NFL contract and destination, but you can’t ask a quarterback to overcome his own defense as well as the opponent’s.

And that’s what happened last year.

The Bucs scored at least 27 points in more than half their games. That’s darned impressive. Only six other teams could say the same thing, and all six went to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was 5-11.

Makes it easy to point fingers, right?

The problem is there was no singular flaw that sabotaged the defense. No obvious hole that needed to be plugged. Instead, it was the totality of the unit that led to ruin.

The pass rush? It was okay. The run defense? Pretty bad, but not a lethal failing. The secondary? Believe it or not, there were worse. And yet the Bucs gave up more touchdowns than any team in the NFL.

That means new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles may be the most important person walking out of the Tampa Bay locker room Sunday afternoon. It’s his responsibility to take a handful of draft picks and a 32-year-old free agent lineman and revamp an entire defense.

What are the chances of that happening?

Well, in 2013 he took a mediocre Arizona defense and turned it into a top 10 unit in his first year as defensive coordinator under Arians. And in 2015, he did the same thing with the Jets in his first year as a head coach. That’s encouraging. But the Jets were also 28th, 22nd and 29th in scoring defense in Bowles’ next three seasons.

In other words, there is no miracle cure. The Bucs will be more cohesive under Bowles. They will be smarter. They will definitely be more aggressive in his schemes.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,’’ Arians said. “As soon as the guys got to know him got to be around him, they got the feeling of how we’re going to attack.’’

So let’s examine each component of the Bucs defense based on how they did last season compared to the NFL average, and what the odds are for improvement in 2019.

Run defense

The four-man front has been turned into a three-man line and 32-year-old Ndamukong Suh is the only proven performer in the bunch. That doesn’t necessarily spell disaster. Vita Vea remains an intriguing player if he can stay healthy enough to get a majority of starts.

In a best-case scenario, Vea and Suh tie up enough offensive linemen that Tampa Bay’s linebackers have clear paths to the ball carrier. This isn’t going to be a strength, but it shouldn’t be a weakness either.

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“That is a powerful inside, not just space eaters,’’ Arians said. “These are penetrating guys who can rush the passer, eat up blocks and free those linebackers up. And, they can make plays themselves.”


Pass defense

Everyone seems to think switching from predominantly zone coverage to man-to-man will be an upgrade. That’s only true if your corners can actually cover people. And, so far, that’s an iffy proposition.

The four defensive backs at the top of the depth chart in Week 1 — Carlton Davis, Vernon Hargreaves, Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards — have combined for one interception in the NFL.

The availability of oft-injured safety Justin Evans could have a big impact on the season, but it’s hard to imagine calling the secondary a strength come December.


Pass rush

This could be a make-or-break proposition for the Bucs. A good pass rush would take the heat off the young secondary and improve Tampa Bay’s third-down defense.

The problem is Jason Pierre-Paul is out until at least October and Suh is not the pass rusher he was as a younger player. This means the Bucs are going to need pressure from their linebackers.

And while the Bucs brass crowed in April that Devin White could be a force as inside blitzer there really isn’t much evidence in Bowles’ history to make that seem like a safe bet.

Free agent Shaquil Barrett and Carl Nassib could turn into the most important players on defense.


Turnovers

Nothing typified Tampa Bay’s defensive woes in 2018 more than takeaways. Or lack thereof.

The Bucs got an average number of fumble recoveries, but were one of the NFL’s worst when it came to interceptions. You can blame it on the pass rush, the inexperienced secondary or the passive schemes, but Tampa Bay simply did not have enough splash plays.

Combine that with Winston’s interceptions, and you can see why the Bucs were 31st in turnover margin. Expect improvement just because it’s hard to be that bad two years in a row, but will it be enough?


Scoring defense

Ultimately, this is the only thing that matters. All of the other stats are details and noise.

The 2018 Bucs gave up 53 defensive touchdowns (four more were scored on returns) which is the third-highest total in franchise history.

The good news? They will not be that bad again. Bowles will help. The draft will help. Even Winston can help by cutting down on his own interceptions on the wrong side of the field.

The bad news? There are not enough reinforcements on the roster to transform this defense from bad to good.

So expect improvement. Expect better days.

Just don’t expect miracles.

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


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