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That snarling you hear is the Bucs defense waking up

John Romano | Three weeks into the season, Tom Brady is struggling but Tampa Bay’s defense leads the NFL in fewest points allowed.
Tampa Bay's offense did not hold up its end of the bargain in a 14-12 loss to Green Bay, but defensive players such as Will Gholston made life miserable for Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Tampa Bay's offense did not hold up its end of the bargain in a 14-12 loss to Green Bay, but defensive players such as Will Gholston made life miserable for Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — They are not yet fierce. (But they are kinda grouchy.)

They are not quite dominant. (But they have pestered some big-name QBs.)

They won’t make you forget the Sapp/Brooks/Lynch/Barber days but, for the first time in years, the guys on the defensive side of the ball are carrying an outsized load in Tampa Bay.

Sacks? The Bucs defense is near the top. Turnovers? Tied for first. Passer rating? An impressive 69.4. Scoring? Tampa Bay’s defense has given up fewer points than any team in the NFL.

Heading into October, you could make a case the Bucs would be 0-3 if the defense wasn’t bailing out Tom Brady’s skinny butt. When your offense is contributing less than 15 points a game, you better hope there are some hangry noises coming from the defensive huddle.

Now, this isn’t exactly shocking. Tampa Bay has had a top-10 defense the past two seasons that was — I’m sure Chiefs fans will recall — flat-out ravenous in Super Bowl 55.

But it’s easy to overlook the methodical ascent of a defense when your offense has been putting up 30 points a game for the better part of three seasons.

Not since 2016 has Tampa Bay’s defense had a better-looking resume than the offense when it came time to count statistics at the end of a season. And, Brady notwithstanding, that makes sense when you consider they have selected twice as many defensive players in the first two rounds of the last five drafts.

“Our guys are a little older, guys are a lot smarter, a lot more experienced. Just growing in the defense,” said pass game defensive coordinator Larry Foote. “A lot of guys have been playing together for a few years, and they’re starting to hit their peak. Relatively, guys are still young. They’re doing a good job of buying in and coming together.”

Unlike the offense, which has brought in Brady, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Russell Gage, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Shaq Mason and Breshad Perriman as veteran free agents in recent years, the defense has been built with younger players.

Yes, Shaq Barrett, Akiem Hicks, Logan Ryan, Ndamukong Suh and a handful of others have been signed on the defensive side, but the unit has grown more organically. More patiently.

They also have the type of versatility that Todd Bowles embraces. His safeties can play corner, his corners can play the slot, his edge rushers can drop back into coverage.

The result is offenses are never quite sure what role a defender is playing at any given moment. While it’s impressive that the Bucs are tied for third in the league in sacks, it’s also significant that eight different players have had a hand in sacks. Edge rushers, interior linemen, middle linebackers, defensive backs. Tampa Bay blitzes have come from every direction.

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“Early on, it’s been very disruptive while (opponents) are trying to find their footing,” Bowles said. “We can move people around and disguise things a lot better. Give multiple looks that help us out in the run game and the pass game, depending on who they have come in.

“It’s very helpful that you can do it with the same people on the field. So I think it gives teams some problems.”

Tampa Bay’s trophy case is not as crowded as those in Pittsburgh, New England, Dallas or San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean we are bereft of memories. Around here, we know more about dominant defenses than fans in practically any other market.

We watched the Bucs terrorize NFL quarterbacks for more than a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those defenses set a high bar for ferocity and accepted nothing less.

The current Tampa Bay defense is not there yet. There aren’t as many carcasses in this team’s wake, and these younger guys don’t play with quite the same level of frenzy or mayhem.

But the past few weeks have been a glimpse of what’s possible. They have faced three quarterbacks with Pro Bowl appearances in their past — Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston and Aaron Rodgers — and have come away with more interceptions than touchdown passes. They have not allowed a rushing touchdown and have surrendered only three first downs on penalties.

You can’t call them dominant yet, but you can’t dismiss the possibility.

“They’re maturing and the sky is the limit, because the talent is there,” Foote said. “So talent will not be an excuse, and we want to take the next step. We want to be one of the dominant defenses that you guys talk about. We’re capable of it, but we’ve got to do it from above the neck.

“And those guys are accepting the challenge so far.”

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

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