On defense, Tampa Bay Buccaneers up to big-boy task against New England Patriots

Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward sacks Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward sacks Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Published Aug. 25, 2012

TAMPA — The notion begins simply enough. All it takes is the revolutionary action of dumping greatness on its backside, and you think "hmm."

After that, the idea blossoms. The designated next-big-thing at safety strolls into the end zone with an interception, and you go "huh."

Then the sheer audacity of it all runs away, and you watch the home team slam the door shut on fourth and 1, and you watch as the opposing punter keeps trotting on the field, and you raise an eyebrow as Tom Terrific looks ordinary at quarterback.

At that point, you might have thought … maybe.

The Tampa Bay Bucs' defense, that close-your-eyes-and-pray-someone-trips defense, made a strong suggestion that things might be better than anyone hoped in a 30-28 victory over New England on Friday night. Granted, it was a preseason game and, granted, there is a lot more proving to be done. Still, playing well is better than playing poorly.

The Bucs rushed. They tackled. They played pass defense. Playing against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, they made a muscle. And who knew they had one in them?

Hey, maybe working against the Patriots this week did work for the Bucs.

Just asking, but does anyone know what the Packers are doing next week?

"We definitely got a little better this week, which was good," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "I thought we played better. We played more physical. We tackled better. I thought the guys got after the passer pretty well."

For those who follow the Bucs, this was one of the most comforting things that could have happened. Playing against the big boys, the Bucs played fairly large themselves, and along the way, they seemed to hint this defense will be much, much better than the one you saw a year ago.

You remember that defense, don't you? The one that kept chasing receivers across goal lines? The one that caved in the first time an official signaled an opposing touchdown? They one that finished the season 30th in the league in yardage rankings? Come to think of it, those last 10 games were largely exhibitions (and poor ones, at that) themselves.

This was different. This defense didn't back up a step. It pressured Tom Brady, and it controlled the Patriots running game, and it won all of the big downs. The New England offense that averaged 32 points per game was controlled. Brady, the quarterback who had 13 games last season when his rating was more than 100.0, was pedestrian. He hit only nine of 16 against the Bucs' first teamers, and his rating was only 43.8.

Yeah, that Tom Brady.

"We didn't do anything offensively except lose yardage and turn the ball over," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

How much better can news get? You are allowed to wonder about the offensive line (and the injury to Davin Joseph) and you might still worry about quarterback Josh Freeman. But defense is something that Tampa Bay has always recognized, and it looks a lot like this.

Yeah, yeah. There are a lot of qualifiers to any preseason game. We all understand that. Brady hasn't gotten a lot of work, and there were no game plans, and yada yada. But when a defense plays crisp and fast, when the players become the bunch on Brady, it can change meager expectations.

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If the Bucs can rush the passer, if they can have linemen crunch quarterbacks the way defensive end Michael Bennett did Brady in the first quarter, if they can come up with interceptions the way rookie safety Mark Barron did, then maybe this team really has begun its turnaround. Certainly, there is more reason to believe.

Again, this isn't proof. But if the sloppy play in a 30-7 loss against Tennessee last week was going to vex so many people, then shouldn't this give them hope?

For a night, at least, they gave you hope to think they would have one to rival the first six weeks of last season, back before the season disappeared into a sinkhole. Four times, they threw the Patriots for losses on first down. New England only converted two of its first eight third downs. They scored only once.

Couple all of that with last week, when the first-team defense forced three-and-outs on four of its first five possessions, and maybe, just maybe, Tampa Bay has something going.

Deep down, you probably knew this was where the turnaround had to start. Oh, in Tampa Bay, we always talk about offense and touchdowns and highlights on the scoreboard. But when the Bucs have been worthy of consideration, they have been good on defense.

Remember, the Bucs play in a division with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, and they will have games against both Manning brothers and Adrian Peterson and Philip Rivers and Tony Romo and Robert Griffith III and Michael Vick. They were never going to succeed this season without a defense.

After this game, there is a bit of evidence that they may have one, after all.

Listen to Gary Shelton from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on 98.7-FM The Fan.