The Bucs defense appeared to be bereft of superstars and playmakers as it started 2019. Sure, veteran Ndamukong Suh joined the team to be a presence on the defensive line and Pro Bowl-caliber Lavonte David returned for his ninth season. But beyond that, question marks and potential dotted the roster. After two games, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and his hard-charging unit appear to have some answers. The defense ranks eighth, allowing 304 yards per game. It’s a far cry from ranking 31st, as it did in 2018. But can the Bucs maintain such greatness? We convene a roundtable to get answers.
Unit still strives for full potential
Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer @NFLStroud: It’s hard to imagine the Bucs will limit teams to one offensive touchdown or less the rest of the season. There will be breakdowns along the way. But as long as Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh continue to remain healthy and sit in the middle of the defense, it will be tough to run on the Bucs. Safety remains in flux with Mike Edwards working his way back from injury. And rookie linebacker Devin White has had an rough start to his career. First, he battled tonsillitis and then sprained his knee in the first quarter of Thursday’s game at Carolina. He’s a dominant player once healthy, so that’s the good news. Bucs fans haven’t seen the real Devin White play yet. Overall, as long as Todd Bowles is calling the defense, the Bucs should be in every game.
It’s exciting, fun and sustainable
Eduardo A. Encina, Bucs/pro sports enterprise writer, @EddieintheYard: Dude, I love the swagger that the Bucs defense is playing with. Is this even the same group that allowed 29 points a game? The personnel is mainly the same, adding in players like Shaq Barrett, Devin White and Ndamukong Suh, and their aggressive style of play is not only fun to watch, but it’s entirely sustainable. Now, they might allow more than a touchdown a game on some occasions -- their Week 4 game in Los Angeles will be a huge early test -- but the heartbeat of the Todd Bowles scheme is in the middle up front. And as long as Vita Vea, Suh and William Gholston continue to provide pressure up the middle, it will allow everyone around them to remain in attack mode. I’m excited to see this defense continue to grow.
Hargreaves a concern amid early success
Thomas Bassinger, sports data reporter, @tometrics: The Bucs made some big plays against the Panthers — three fourth-and-1 stops, including a game-saving goal-line stand — but I haven’t seen dominance. They still have weaknesses. On Thursday, one of those was cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Though he made the game-saving tackle of Christian McCaffrey, Carolina picked on him all night. Cam Newton, who did not have a good night himself, completed 10 of his 11 passes into his coverage, including six first downs. Maybe it was just a blip, but given his track record, you can’t dismiss it. Hargreaves’ struggles aside, I have seen a much more competitive and confident group than I saw last season. One reason to feel hopeful: defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His game plan for defending Newton (blitz, blitz again and keep blitzing) ran counter to his peers’ recent game plans (blitz here and there), and it worked. Against the Bucs in 2018, Newton averaged 8.3 yards per pass; on Thursday, he averaged 6.5.
The secondary remains a work in progress
John Romano, columnist @romano_tbtimes: That’s a big ask. Tampa Bay’s defense has given up one touchdown in two games, which is an upper echelon-level performance. Is that because the defense is dramatically improved, or because Jimmy Garoppolo and a diminishing Cam Newton were not difficult tests? I’m guessing the answer is a little bit of both. The defense is stopping the run and getting some critical sacks out of Shaq Barret, but I’m still not convinced the secondary is completely solved.
Bigger tests ahead
Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor, @hoop4you: The Niners’ Jimmy Garoppolo appeared to still be finding his sea legs. The Panthers’ Cam Newton played with an apparent foot injury and just didn’t appear to be himself. Now the Bucs take on rookie Daniel Jones, who might pull the upset but likely will run into a buzz saw. Yes, the defense is vastly improved, the blitzing schemes of Todd Bowles appear to be sending quarterbacks into a tailspin. But there’s much to prove as the team faces better quarterbacks and offenses.
The D may continue to benefit from injuries
Mike Sherman, sports editor, @mikesherman: Heck no. Allowing one touchdown every two weeks is the stuff of the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, etc. But is Tampa Bay back in the defensive football business? Absolutely. When the Bucs schedule came out, they were to face a gauntlet of quarterbacking excellence. Then Andrew Luck retired, Nick Foles hurt his shoulder, Drew Brees went out for six weeks with an injured thumb and Cam Newton lost his cape.
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