TAMPA — The day after the 39-37 loss at Houston, Todd Bowles gathered the entire defense in a meeting room to watch film of the Bucs’ colossal collapse against the Texans.
Normally, they would break off into position groups to view the previous game. But the head coach made it clear if there was something players didn’t like, they needed to speak up.
“Coach Bowles, he really did it all,” linebacker Devin White said. “He wasn’t happy and, man, I respect him, because at the end of the day, it all comes back on him. We’re all in this together and we know he’s the head man and he really took over. We had our own meetings on Friday, and you know, we watched film and we just talked about what we need to fix and how we see things and making sure everybody was on the same page.”
On Sunday, the Tampa Bay defense held a players-only meeting in the face of Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis. The Bucs sacked him four times, hit him on 13 occasions and intercepted him once in a 20-6 win that snapped a four-game losing streak and put them right back in the NFC South hunt.
The defense limited Titans running back Derrick Henry to only 24 yards on 11 carries and combined for 10 tackles for loss.
It was a complete reversal of the lackluster performance in Houston against C.J. Stroud, who passed for a rookie-record 470 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winner with six seconds remaining.
Instead of sitting back in a soft zone defense, the Bucs (4-5) attacked Levis with an array of blitzes, stunts and pressures that Bowles is known for.
Cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Zyon McCollum played press and man-to-man coverage and disrupted the timing of Levis with receiver DeAndre Hopkins (three catches, 27 yards, eight targets) and Chris Moore (two catches, 21 yards, four targets). Levis passed for only 199 yards with zero TDs and the interception from Antoine Winfield Jr., the first of the season by a member of the Bucs’ starting secondary.
“The way they practiced, the leadership with Lavonte (David), Devin (White), Vita (Vea), Win(field Jr.) — those guys take over the team and the focus was there so it’s just a matter of playing on Sunday,” Bowles said. “We’ve had those weeks before where it didn’t show up but it showed up this game and they made sure of it.
“Like I told them, the answers to the test are in the room with us together. We have all our answers. We’ve just got to play mistake-free football. We understand how we have to play. Today everybody made plays.”
It was the fewest points the Bucs defense has allowed since the 19-3 season-opening win over the Cowboys in 2022. The Titans got a field goal on their opening drive and only two first downs over their next six possessions.
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Offensively, the Bucs did just enough to make the comeback attempt harder for Levis.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield overcame an early interception to pass for 278 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He could have had more, but Mike Evans dropped two passes, including one in the end zone. Mayfield, however, came right back to him on the next possession and Evans responded with a 22-yard TD, dragging Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton 5 yards into the end zone.
But the story for the Bucs on Sunday was a prideful defense rediscovering its identity. White said Bowles played the film of the Houston game slowly, pausing to call out each player whenever a mistake was identified. It was both brutal and brazen and exactly what they needed.
“Obviously being called out in front of everybody, that set a fire under you and that’s what he did,” White said. “Man, he just kept it real with us. ... We’re an NFL team and it’s Week 9. We’re talking about fundamentals. We should have this down pat. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win ballgames and we got back to the fundamentals.”
As McCollum and Dean locked down the outside receivers, the Bucs gang-tackled Henry and then came after Levis on third down with a vengeance. The Titans only averaged 3.5 yards per play and Tampa Bay owned a 340-209 advantage in total net yards.
McCollum said the defensive backs met again Saturday and talked about playing tighter coverage.
“Us as a DB group, we got together yesterday and just talked,” McCollum said. “Each individual player spoke up and talked about what we want to see, what we have to do and what it came down to was trust.
“It was just getting back to what we do best, which is press and man-to-man coverage. Getting our hands on the receiver at the line of scrimmage is going to disrupt the timing of the quarterback every single time. We’ve got great pass rushers. If we can give them time to get there, we’ll be in the right spot.”
Bowles made it clear he and the coaches decided how to attack the Titans. “No, they had no input in the game plan,” Bowles said of the players. “If they want to get there at 3 in the morning, they’re more than welcome.”
If it works this well, they may want to talk around the clock.
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