With the Bucs three-quarters of the way through the seasons, our coverage team weighed in on this question: What about this season looks better or worse than it first appeared?
A rookie-led defensive transformation
Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer, @NFLStroud: The defense was a hot mess for most of the first half of the season. The front seven played well stopping the run and Shaq Barrett got off to a hot start. But there were two things holding the Bucs back: rookie middle linebacker Devin White’s knee sprain and an inexperienced secondary.
White was drafted No. 5 overall for his play-making ability and leadership qualities. He couldn’t exhibit either, missing all or parts of four games. Meanwhile, the Bucs yielded too many big passing plays with Vernon Hargreaves at cornerback. Sean Murphy-Bunting was lost in coverage. Mike Edwards dropped a big interception.
But following the Seahawks game in which Jamel Dean allowed three touchdown passes to Russell Wilson but also had several pass breakups, the rookies took it upon themselves to work harder, spending more hours with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles learning the defense. The result has been a complete turnaround.
The combination of pressure on the quarterback and tighter coverage had produced three wins in the past four games.
White has taken over the leadership of that rookie class and the entire team is beginning to follow his lead. That only happens when you make big plays. White had two sacks against the Falcons and recorded his first NFL interception and touchdown after scooping up a fumble caused by Barrett and returning it for a touchdown.
The secondary has become primary
Eduardo A. Encina, Bucs beat writer/pro sports enterprise, @EddieintheYard: As the Bucs opened the season to a 2-6 start, the defense allowed an average of 31.5 points and 372 yards a game. The players didn’t seem to match the defense. Bowles’ pressure-heavy scheme left young defensive backs on an island, and the pass rush didn’t often enough get to the quarterback to help them out. But sometimes young players need time to get used to a scheme.
Rookies need the opportunity to fail and learn from it. And over the past four weeks, we’ve seen the Bucs’ young secondary make tremendous strides. They’re breaking up passes they weren’t remotely close to. They’re causing more turnovers, and their confidence is growing. Combine that with a front seven that has 11 sacks in the past two games, and maybe all the defense needed was patience to become great.
The Bucs’ loss to the Giants looks way worse
Mike Sherman, deputy editor | sports, @mikesherman: A generous view of the Bucs’ 32-31 loss to the Giants is that Bruce Arians and Co. were a little rusty. The less generous: That was coaching malpractice. Settling for field goals (glad to see they are making better use of all four downs these days), taking a delay-of-game penalty before the fateful missed field goal, blowing an 18-point halftime lead at home, forgetting Mike Evans was on the roster in the second half. It’s great sport to point to blown officiating calls in New Orleans and Nashville and play what-if with those losses. But if you are demanding perfection from officiating what’s required from coaching? The Giants loss illustrated Arians’ coaching, like the Bucs defense, had lots of room for improvement. Fortunately for the Bucs, we are seeing it now.