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Bucs-Vikings: What could make Tampa Bay's defense elite again

Bucs outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) celebrates after recovering a fumble by Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon (8) during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) celebrates after recovering a fumble by Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon (8) during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Sep. 22, 2017

TAMPA — The last time the Bucs had a top-five defense also happens to be when they last appeared in the postseason.

A decade has passed since 2007, a decade without that rock to lean on.

Now, fortified by a couple sterling draft classes and led by former Falcons head coach Mike Smith, the D in the Bucs DNA is back.

"I get so excited playing with these guys because at every level there's something special, at every position," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.

"We've had that before. But it's a different feel the way our guys are working together. Coach Smith is a big part of that. How we prepare, it starts with the mindset, what he's drilled into us every day. Guys are just putting it together."

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Bucs' 29-7 opening win over Chicago was the domination of its defense.

They allowed only 20 yards rushing. They created three turnovers (a fourth came on special teams), with a fumble recovery and two interceptions. They scored on a pick six by cornerback Robert McClain.

The Bucs only sacked quarterback Bears quarterback Mike Glennon once, but hit him seven other times — four by McCoy. Of course, that came against a Bears team with significant injuries to their top receivers. The test gets much tougher at 1 p.m. Sunday at Minnesota.

Like most coaches, Smith has goals for his defense each game. If achieved, he believes they will allow Tampa Bay to finish among the top five in the league.

"We're all striving to be a top five defense," Smith said. "Of course, we want to be No. 1."

To get there, Smith uses these markers:

One sack for every 14 pass attempts;

One fumble recovery and two interceptions per game;

Hold the opponents under 4 yards per rush;

Limit explosive plays, defined by the Bucs staff as a run of 12 yards or more and a pass of more than 20 yards.

The Bucs accomplished all but one of those goals against the Bears. They had only one sack in 41 pass attempts, but the pass rush did affect Glennon.

At this time a year ago, Smith's defense was a mess. Players were unfamiliar with the scheme. Communication was poor. Confidence was low. The Bucs allowed 29 points per game through the first eight contests.

Then something clicked. In the final eight games, the Bucs allowed 17.1 points per game and forced 13 interceptions, tops in the NFL the second half of the season.

Tampa Bay's 21 sacks during that stretch were fifth-most in the league. In fact, the 38 sacks in 548 pass attempts nearly hit Smith's marker, with a sack every 14.4 attempts.

"First and foremost, it's the players," safety T.J. Ward said. "It's the players and then the scheme. The scheme is nothing without the players out there. So that being said, the linebackers and D-line, it starts there, stopping the run.

"They did a great job of that last week and looking forward to doing that in the weeks coming. And then it ends with us in the secondary, limiting big plays and tackling well and making plays on the ball. If we put it all together, I think we have the ability to be great in both areas — interceptions, forced fumbles and making big plays."

Ward is right. What the Bucs have now is Pro Bowl-caliber talent at all three levels of the defense.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) leaps onto the field before the opener against Chicago Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. Alexander will miss Sunday's game at Minnesota due to a hamstring injury.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) leaps onto the field before the opener against Chicago Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. Alexander will miss Sunday's game at Minnesota due to a hamstring injury.

Defensive line: On the first play of Sunday's game, McCoy lined up at defensive end in Smith's 3-4 alignment and dropped Jordan Howard for a loss.

"It starts with 93," Smith said, calling McCoy's jersey number. "There is no doubt about that. You win in this league by winning the line of scrimmage and he is a very disruptive player and he set the tone on the very first play."

The Bucs got bigger up front by signing defensive tackle Chris Baker from Washington. Like McCoy, he can command double teams. Defensive end William Gholston is the team's best defensive lineman against the run. Noah Spence, a second-round pick, may emerge as an elite edge rusher.

Linebacker: Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are one of the NFL's best tandems. David has been to the Pro Bowl. Alexander should be there soon. The Bucs added rookie Kendell Beckwith, who at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds is bigger than most Bucs linebackers but can run and hit like them.

"I said this earlier on that I don't know that he was 100 percent healthy (last season)," Smith said. "He had some nagging injuries that he was dealing with. He looks much quicker [and] more decisive all through training camp and through the first game of the season."

Secondary: At 34, Brent Grimes still plays at a Pro Bowl level. Vernon Hargreaves is a 2016 first-round pick who seems to have his swagger back. The Bucs have an athletic safety in Chris Conte, whose interceptions against the Bears and Chiefs turned the season around. Finally, Ward is a Pro Bowl talent who was the leader of the No Fly Zone in Denver.

"Everybody on this defense is playing for each other," McCoy said.

If that continues, they may be playing late into January.

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