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Analysis: Turnovers hold key to Bucs' turnaround

Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner intercepts a pass by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Monday, then gets set to return it for a score. “You transition from defense to offense right away,” Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said. “On Alterraun Verner’s (return), that was a good escort to the end zone. Some good blocks on there.”
Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner intercepts a pass by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Monday, then gets set to return it for a score. “You transition from defense to offense right away,” Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said. “On Alterraun Verner’s (return), that was a good escort to the end zone. Some good blocks on there.”
Published Aug. 26, 2015

TAMPA

With the team meeting room serving as his pulpit, Lovie Smith delivers the same emotional speech as nearly every other NFL coach.

He preaches getting turnovers.

Saying a Hail Mary is not nearly as important as intercepting one. And the man upstairs — in this case defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier — is always watching.

So perhaps it's no surprise that entering their second season under Smith, the Bucs are true believers. They caused three fumbles in their preseason loss Aug. 15 at Minnesota. Then in Monday night's 25-11 win over the Bengals at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay intercepted two passes — including one returned for a touchdown by cornerback Alterraun Verner — and forced a fumble.

In 2014, his first season as Bucs coach, Smith's defense created 25 turnovers. But that was three fewer than his worst of nine years in Chicago, where the Bears averaged 34.4 takeaways. In fact, the year Smith was fired, the Bears were second in the NFL in turnovers with 44, matching their high water output during the Super Bowl season in '06.

"I think it always starts with talent," Smith said. "I had talent then with those teams and we have talent right now. But I think guys have to buy into it. The coaching staff has to believe in it, we believe in it. I mean, we talk about it being in our Tampa Bay DNA if you play defensive ball around here. We do practice it, but you need to see some results.

"It's not like it is some secret weapon or anything. It's about getting the ball back. That's what you're trying to do when you're on the defensive side and score. But it is good to see it happening. But we need to see it happen even more."

If the Bucs really want to make life easier for rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the defense needs to provide a lopsided playing field.

It happened Monday night, first with Verner's pick of a pass tipped by Bengals receiver A.J. Green that he returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Then safety Bradley McDougald caught an overthrown ball by quarterback Andy Dalton and returned it to the Bengals' 12-yard line, setting up a touchdown. Finally, cornerback Mike Jenkins forced a fumble recovered by Bruce Carter.

"It has to become a habit for us," Smith said. "First you have to get that takeaway. From there, yes. You transition from defense to offense right away. On Alterraun Verner's, that was a good escort to the end zone. Some good blocks on there. On McDougald's though, we had a good chance to score on that one. You can't assume if you get it down there you're going to score a touchdown. It's about getting it in. We'll keep working on it."

To understand how players have bought in, you have to watch a Bucs practice. Every player swarms the football. They try to pry it loose from the ballcarriers' hands down the field and all the way back to the huddle.

Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, the star of Monday Night Football, was so impressed, that he called turnovers "the winning edge."

"Lovie Smith has got to love this," Gruden said during the telecast. "His defenses are known for creating turnovers. Thirty-four turnovers a year. He's on a mission to get that done here.

"Good coverage and watch Tampa Bay after the ball is thrown. There are three or four outstanding blocks. Lovie Smith. It's a winning edge for his style of football. Get turnovers or you can't play here."

Of course, there are several reasons for the Bucs' outbreak. Many of the players are in at least their second season under Smith and fully aware of the nuances of the Tampa 2 defense. Also, the overall talent is better.

"We break our huddles in the team meetings with a 'Ready, score!' '' Verner said. "So I just tried my best to get in the end zone … that's what we always preach."

To which Smith says, Amen.