TAMPA — The days of blood-and-guts football are long gone. Passing is everything, scoring is up, and gurus are revered.
The top defense in the NFL this year gave up an average of 18.5 points a game, which would have barely cracked the top 10 in 2000. It’s a different game with different expectations. For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs had more touchdowns than punts in 2020.
Yes, this season was going to be all about the scoreboard in Tampa Bay. Tom Brady! Rob Gronkowski! Mike Evans! Chris Godwin! Antonio Brown! That’s 30 Pro Bowl appearances in the same offensive huddle.
And orchestrating all of it was Bruce Arians, who has been running NFL offenses for nearly 20 years. Whadda ya say, Bruce? Is this nirvana for the scoring-minded among us?
“We’ve been winning with defense,” Arians said.
Um, okay. The Bucs set a franchise record for scoring this season and have topped 30 points in three consecutive playoff games, but the man has a point. A pretty darn good point.
Of the four teams in the conference championship games on Jan. 24, Tampa Bay was the only one with a top-10 defense. And of the 61 points the Bucs scored in New Orleans and Green Bay the past two games? Yeah, 35 came directly off turnovers.
Arians was approaching the issue with a broader point of view and a greater sense of where the franchise was coming from. When he arrived in January 2019, the Bucs were a pretty decent offensive team. They had a losing record but were 12th in the NFL in scoring in the 2018 season. It was the defense that was a mess. The Bucs gave up 29 points a game and were a field goal from being the worst defense in the NFL.
Now that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is in charge? Arians said the defense is “light years” ahead.
The combination of turnovers and sacks made defense cool again in Tampa Bay, and the past two games have sent future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers muttering into the offseason.
“It took a while,” Arians said. “But I think Todd has just done a tremendous job.”
This isn’t Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 defense that terrorized the rest of the NFL in the early 2000s. Roles are not as defined, and versatility is valued. The days of overwhelming an offense are gone, and defensive game plans are adjusted heavily from week to week.
The Packers, for instance, were caught off guard by Bowles’ blitz packages in the NFC Championship Game. When the Bucs beat Green Bay in October, they had used linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David and their safeties for inside blitzes. In the rematch, the pressure came from outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, along with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot, and it allowed the safeties to stay deep.
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“I think (Bowles’) schemes for years have been cutting edge,” Rodgers said.
The Bucs are aggressive on defense, blitzing about 40 percent of the time, but it’s the way they disguise the pass rush that has made them effective. It’s not unusual to see linemen Ndamukong Suh or William Gholston drop into zone coverage while defensive backs blitz, leaving offensive linemen unsure of who they’re supposed to be blocking.
The year before Bowles arrived, Bucs defensive backs did not have a single sack. This season, safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead have combined for five sacks and seven quarterback hits. A year after Barrett got 19½ sacks from the edge, the Bucs got nine sacks out of White with inside blitzes.
Instead of forcing one style of defense on 11 players, the idea is to capitalize on each player’s skill set by moving them around and putting them in positions to succeed.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. I think we’re all on the same page. I think that’s the key part,” said nose tackle Vita Vea. “Coach Bowles brings a lot to the table with all the different defenses he has for us. It’s really set up for everyone to make plays.”
For the low-key, dignified Bowles, the past two years have been a career revival. Having played for Arians at Temple in the 1980s, Bowles got his first full-time gig as a defensive coordinator with Arians in Arizona and was named the Associated Press assistant coach of the year in 2014. That led to his first head-coaching job, with the Jets, which turned into a four-year debacle.
His players loved him in New York, but that devotion never showed up on the field, where the team seemed to get worse from one year to the next. Bowles had a 24-40 record when he was fired late in 2018.
Bowles, 57, heard his name mentioned with head-coaching vacancies in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia last month, though none seemed to be serious suitors. Having experienced a tumultuous situation in New York, Bowles has indicated in the past that he’ll be more selective about where he goes if he gets another opportunity to be a head coach.
Meanwhile, he’s got a good thing going in Tampa Bay. The Bucs invested heavily in the defense in the past three drafts, and Arians has unquestioned faith and loyalty in the job Bowles has done.
Brady and the offense may steal the headlines, but the reason the Bucs are in Super Bowl 55 seems obvious to the folks at One Buc Place.
“Scoring points has never really been that hard,” Arians said. “I knew when we came here, we were going to build a defense. You win on defense, because scoring points isn’t that hard.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
The Tampa Bay Takeaway
Few offenses have benefitted more from their defensive colleagues than the Bucs. During the last two seasons, Tampa Bay is tied for fourth in the NFL in total takeaways and is second in the league in points scored off turnovers.
Baltimore: 47 takeaways, 234 points off turnovers
Tampa Bay: 53, 231
Pittsburgh: 65, 219
Green Bay: 43. 180
Seattle: 54, 179
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