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Better hop aboard, the Bucs defense is about to set sail

John Romano | With their injured players starting to return, Tampa Bay’s defense looked like its old self against the Bears.
Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett, in front, celebrates while rowing the boat with teammates after he recovered a fumbled sack Sunday against the Bears at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett, in front, celebrates while rowing the boat with teammates after he recovered a fumbled sack Sunday against the Bears at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 25
Updated Oct. 25

TAMPA — When you have been forced to tread water for as long as this defense, you learn a few things about survival.

For instance, the row boat waits for no man.

Around the third time the Bucs defense broke out its row boat celebration during Sunday’s 38-3 victory against the Bears, Vita Vea was slow to get in line. So the 350-pound defensive lineman flopped on the ground and pantomimed swimming alongside the paddlers.

“Everybody just fits in where they can (on the make-believe boat),” said safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who had his first sack of the season after missing two games with a concussion. “The first person that gets there sets it up and everybody just tries to hop in behind him.

“But, yeah, Vita’s a clown.”

It was that kind of day for a battered but unbroken defense. Lots of turnovers, lots of sacks, lots of laughs. And maybe a little vindication for a defense that was looking kind of thin in September.

Bucs linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90), center, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea (50), left, join other teammates in celebrating an interception by cornerback Pierre Desir (29) during the third quarter.
Bucs linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90), center, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea (50), left, join other teammates in celebrating an interception by cornerback Pierre Desir (29) during the third quarter. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It’s too soon to say they are back to the ferocity of last postseason, but the Bucs defense has given up fewer than 15 points a game during the past four weeks.

That’s an impressive run no matter the circumstances, but it’s truly remarkable when you consider six defensive backs (Winfield, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Jamel Dean and Richard Sherman) and two linebackers (Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul) have missed games with injuries.

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has juggled his lineup week after week, with new faces showing up at practice on Wednesday and finding themselves in the huddle on Sunday.

“Todd is putting in a hell of a plan where we have pressure, mixing up our coverages,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Our safeties are doing a really good job of disguising and those corners have stepped up and played. Rashard (Robinson) went in and played good. Pierre (Desir) goes in and has an interception. Dee (Delaney) has an interception.

“That is really good coaching. I have to give Todd a ton of credit for that.”

Bucs defensive back Dee Delaney (30) celebrates his interception after picking off Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first quarter.
Bucs defensive back Dee Delaney (30) celebrates his interception after picking off Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Bowles has a reputation for being aggressive with his blitz packages, but he’s had to dial it back with so many new faces in the secondary. The Bucs have been playing more zone than usual, basically forcing offenses to throw underneath and earn their way down the field a few yards at a time.

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“A lot of the defense is the same,” Bowles said. “I probably haven’t let Devin (White) be as aggressive as he’s used to because (David) isn’t there. And the same with the safeties with Jordan coming back, he does things a little different than when Mike (Edwards) is in there.

“We try to make sure we’re not playing safe and cautious, but we’re not going all out as well. So it’s a fine line and you have to pick your spots. They’ve been doing a hell of a job preparing.”

That’s what made Sunday’s game feel so cathartic. Week after week, the Bucs have been forced into survival mode instead of their usual go-for-broke style. Finally, they had a game Sunday where they were able to play as loose and fierce as they normally do.

It helped that the offense staked them to an early lead. Not to mention, the Bears are not a very good offensive team, and the defensive front was able to get a lot of pressure on rookie quarterback Justin Fields.

Pierre-Paul, who revealed he’s been playing with a torn rotator cuff and a fractured finger, had two sacks and a forced fumble. Shaquil Barrett, after getting one sack in the first three games of the season, has now dumped the quarterback in four consecutive games.

The five turnovers Sunday gave the Bucs 14 for the season, which puts them in a tie for second in the NFL. Step back and think about how insane that is for a team that has had every starter in the secondary — and some of their backups — go down through the first two months.

“We know we can do more,” Pierre-Paul said. “Coach Bowles is always screaming we can do more and I just know we can.”

It was certainly good enough on Sunday to have multiple turns in the row boat, which was originally set afloat by former Bucs Kwon Alexander and M.J. Stewart back in 2018.

“You can see we’re having fun rowing the boat, dancing, whatever it takes to win,” Pierre-Paul said. “I think the guys are just feeding off that energy.”

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

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