TAMPA — Last season, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did more to exploit the debacle that was the Bucs defense than any other player in the league. He had four touchdown passes and four rushing touchdowns while the Panthers racked up 86 points in two routs, and the offensive rookie of the year tossed in an end zone celebration for good measure. He pretended to tear open his shirt as if he had ducked in a phone booth and emerged a superhero.
"He did it without even trying last year," Bucs safety Ronde Barber said.
But it was Tampa Bay's lack of effort and execution on defense, yielding a club-record 494 points, that led to the sideline sweeping of coaches and several players in the offseason.
Newton's return to Raymond James Stadium for Sunday's season opener should raise the fear factor of Tampa Bay's defense, but he's not the one who players fear.
"I don't think any team, any player could frighten us more than messing up for (Greg) Schiano," defensive tackle Roy Miller said of the Bucs coach. 'I think we all want to do exactly what he tells us to do. People are more scared of him than anything. That's a good thing."
Schiano has entrusted his defense with coordinator Bill Sheridan, who has some new pieces of the puzzle to improve the league's worst against the run. The signing of Lions free agent cornerback Eric Wright enabled Barber to move to safety and team with first-round pick Mark Barron, the safety from Alabama. Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David will start as a rookie at the spot popularized by Derrick Brooks.
Little is known about the 2012 defense, but Schiano has dropped hints that it is designed to create confusion and pressure on the quarterback with multiple looks and blitzes from anywhere.
"Every first game, there's an element (of surprise)," Schiano said. "Coaches don't sit around all spring and summer. They go out and investigate new ideas and come up with new things. So we're going to see new things, both offensively and defensively.
"There's a little more unknown about us, which is fine. It won't be for long, but we'll take it where we can get it."
The starting defense played well in brief preseason appearances against the Titans and 49ers. Though wafer thin on the line due to the torn Achilles injury suffered by end Da'Quan Bowers and the release of tackle Brian Price, the defensive players flew around, were disruptive and created turnovers.
"It's a good feeling because everybody is so hungry," end Michael Bennett said. "I've seen people work so hard this offseason, I'm just ready to see it pay off.
"I've seen guys change their bodies and their attitudes and things, and I'm ready to see how it's going to transfer to the field."