Bucs defense dominates and we should have seen it coming

Bucs defensive back Robert McClain (36) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs defensive back Robert McClain (36) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Sept. 18, 2017

TAMPA — They were fast. They were flashy. A bunch of the new guys stood out. One made his debut by scoring a touchdown. The scoreboard was lit.

Not the Bucs offense, mind you.

Like the cannons in the north end zone of Raymond James Stadium that were quiet because of a mechanical issue, Jameis Winston and all his new weapons lacked firepower Sunday.

That may have been the most surprising thing about the Bucs' 29-7 rout of the Chicago Bears. It was the Bucs defense, which has gone largely overlooked, that made a statement.

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The Bucs forced four turnovers in the first half — three by the defense and one on special teams — which led to 20 points.

They ruined the homecoming of Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, who passed for 301 yards — and a touchdown in the final two minutes to avoid the shutout.

And they allowed only 20 rushing yards.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander got the turnover party going with an interception in the first quarter. Noah Spence sacked Glennon and caused a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Lavonte David.

Finally, newcomer Robert McClain stepped in front of a Glennon pass intended for receiver Josh Bellamy and returned it 47 yards for his first NFL touchdown.

By halftime, it was 26-0. If not for a dropped interception in the end zone by Vernon Hargreaves, the Bucs would've pitched a shutout Sunday.

Of course, we all should have seen this coming. Since about Week 9 of the 2016 season, the Bucs have had one of the best defenses in the NFL. They finished third in the league with 29 takeaways last year.

"Look at the second half of last year, they were a dominant defense,'' coach Dirk Koetter said. "I think they just picked up where they left off. It wasn't really that surprising to me because we see them every day in practice. I thought we did an awesome job. ... There's things to work on, on both sides. But the D stole the show today.''

Glennon was sacked only once, but he was hit seven other times, including four by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

The Bucs starters had not played a game of any kind for at least 22 days. For some, it had been a month due to Hurricane Irma, which postponed the season opener at Miami last week until Nov. 19. Rest or rust? That was the big question. It turned out to be both. The defense looked rested. The Bucs offense looked a little rusted.

The best play of the day for the Bucs' offense may have come in the first quarter after Bears rookie Tarik Cohen inexplicably tried to pick up a rolling punt that was about to be downed inside the 20 yard line. He picked it up, cornerback Ryan Smith forced the fumble and linebacker Cameron Lynch recovered on the Chicago 13.

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On the next play, Winston threw a perfect fade pass to Mike Evans in the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. But that was the biggest highlight.

"When your defense gets you the ball back, when your special teams gets you the ball back on your side of the field, you have to capitalize on that,'' Winston said.

After the game, Winston said he got some advice from defensive end Robert Ayers.

"He was like, 'Man, we've got to step on their throat,' '' Winston said. "That's what we have to do. When we're up 26-0 at halftime, and we only get 29 points, we have to continue to get better, we have to continue to dominate. When you dominate a team, that's huge.''

This Bucs defense may not be at the Super Bowl level of Sapp, Brooks and Lynch. But there are Pro Bowl players at every level in McCoy, David, Alexander, Brent Grimes and newcomer T.J. Ward. When Alexander tweaked a sore hamstring, rookie Kendell Beckwith replaced him with no dropoff.

On his second snap in the game Sunday, Ward knifed through the Bears offense and flattened Cohen. Ward was part of the No Fly Zone on the Broncos Super Bowl defense. He says the Bucs can be in that class.

"Oh yeah, we definitely can be No. 1,'' Ward said. "The talent we have in that room. They work hard. It's everything you need to be a championship defense. You've got great players. Great talent. The work ethic and then the energy and everything else feeds itself. We definitely have championship material in this locker room.''

Just wait until the offense gets going.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @nflstroud