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If Bucs make another deep playoff run, it will be the defense that carries them

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has been playing shorthanded due to injuries this season, but help appears to be on the way.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) knocks the ball away from New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton (86) during Monday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) knocks the ball away from New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton (86) during Monday's game at Raymond James Stadium. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | Associated Press ]
Published Nov. 26, 2021
Updated Nov. 26, 2021

TAMPA — For all the credit Tom Brady gets for leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl, it was a resurgent defense that pointed the way.

That’s not meant to minimize what the greatest quarterback of all time accomplished during his first season with Tampa Bay.

But when Todd Bowles’' defense began to dominate teams by forcing turnovers and pressuring the quarterback, the Bucs became unstoppable, finishing with an eight-game winning streak.

What will it take for the Bucs to replicate that strong finish on defense this season?

“Just working together and growing each week,” Bowles said. “I think we’ve shown flashes. I think we’re getting better each week, but coming down the stretch run you’ve got to put it all together consistently and we’re working on that every day.”

Health is wealth in the NFL, and the Bucs defense has been decimated by injuries this season, particularly in the secondary.

They were down to their seventh cornerback in the 29-19 loss at Washington a couple weeks ago after Dee Delaney left the game with a concussion. Delaney started the game because Richard Sherman suffered a calf injury in warmups.

But Monday night against the Giants, the return of cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting had an instant impact. He played all but one defensive snap and finished with seven tackles and a forced fumble.

More importantly, he locked down receivers in man coverage and allowed Bowles’ array of blitzes to affect Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. The Bucs had two interceptions, including the first career pick by defensive tackle Steve McLendon.

Defensive tackle Vita Vea (knee) and linebacker Devin White (quad) are expected to play Sunday, giving the Bucs their two best run-stuffers against Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.

“I see our defense getting their swagger back,” coach Bruce Arians said.

Unfortunately, the Bucs are a different team whenever they leave Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay has allowed 27.5 points per game on the road, compared to 16.8 at home.

Meanwhile, the Colts lead the NFL with a plus-15 turnover ratio. They have forced 25 turnovers, including 13 interceptions and 12 fumbles.

“They’re really good at punching out the ball, and we’ve got to have great ball security,” Arians said. “We’ve had issues on the road so far this year with turnovers, so it’s a top priority for us is to win the turnover battle in this game.”

Defensively, the Bucs like home cooking, too. In five road games, they have only intercepted two passes. They average that many per game at home.

“It’s just playing together, just get started faster,” Bowles said. “Come together getting off the bus. Understanding what we have to do when the ball is kicked off and not trying to start the fight late. The fight is there. We don’t play smart all the time coming into the beginning of games, so we’ve just got to start faster.”

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During the playoffs last season, the Bucs were plus-5 in turnover ratio with seven interceptions.

Murphy-Bunting said he believes the Bucs defense is close to getting back to its Super Bowl form.

“I think throughout the year — not saying that we got reliant on our offense — but there were times where guys were kind of playing trying to make plays instead of playing as a whole unit,” he said. “I think that as time went on, we started to realize that very early on and we were able to detect it pretty early so we could fix it throughout the year.

“I think after the bye week and after guys had the chance to really see it for themselves with losing games that we necessarily shouldn’t be losing. It starts to click, and guys start to buy in and trust each other and start playing that playoff, championship football again.”

Evans stands alone

More pages are devoted to the defense than the offense when you study Bucs history. All four players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch — came from that side of the ball.

But even before Mike Evans eclipsed Mike Alstott as the franchise’s career touchdown leader with 72, he was the Bucs’ greatest offensive player.

What’s surprising is that Evans owns the record despite playing receiver.

This season, Evans is tied with the Rams’ Cooper Kupp with 10 TD receptions and on pace to finish with a career-high 18.

Evans is the only player to begin his career with seven consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more receiving yards and is on pace to make it eight.

His consistency is even more remarkable considering he has played with numerous quarterbacks, including Josh McCown, Mike Glennon, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fizpatrick and Brady.

Yet somehow, Evans has only been named to three Pro Bowls, none since 2019.

“Mike is as special as it gets, and I still think he’s underrated to most people,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “I think he’s as special and unique as a wide receiver can be and as who’s ever played. To do what he did in such a short period, that seems quick.

“He allows us to do the things we do offensively because of the way he approaches the game. Who he is on and off the field, the way he’s the big brother to all those guys in the room. Mike’s special, man. I still think he’s one of the most underrated guys in our league to do what he does week in and week out.”

Stay creative

Whether it was Leftwich or Brady or both, the Bucs’ start on offense Monday night against the Giants was as good as it gets.

The Bucs were extremely creative. They used Evans and Chris Godwin on end arounds. Brady connected on passes to tight ends O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. He found running back Leonard Fournette. Godwin scored on a tunnel screen. In fact, Brady was 10 of 10 passing to start the game.

“The players we’ve got allow us to do pretty much anything we want, really,” Leftwich said. “We wanted to score every time we touched it.”

It’s just a reminder that when the Bucs offense doesn’t beat itself with penalties and turnovers, it is as good as any in the league.