Bucs’ de­fense is rid­ing high right now

The Bradenton Herald - - Front Page - BY RICK STROUD

Maybe it’s the din­ners with the en­tire de­fense on Thurs­day nights, some­thing Ger­ald McCoy or­ga­nized and paid for at first and other play­ers have taken turns host­ing for the past month.

Maybe it’s the scheme, born out of ne­ces­sity due to in­juries to key play­ers, which got safety An­drew Adams moved to line­backer when the Buc­ca­neers de­ployed six de­fen­sive backs, mostly on third down.

Maybe it’s the coach­ing change, with lineback­ers coach Mark Duffner tak­ing over from fired de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Smith.

“That en­ergy,’’ de­fen­sive end Ja­son Pierre-Paul said. “We were miss­ing it. That was it. And good play­ing call­ing, man.’’

Most def­i­nitely it’s the im­proved pass rush, which has pro­duced four sacks in each of the past three games, led by Pierre-Paul and Carl Nas­sib.

What­ever the rea­son, the Bucs’ de­fense has been trans­formed from a sieve to a col­lec­tion of stop­pers that has been among the league’s best over the past six weeks.

Since Week 7, the Bucs rank sec­ond in the NFL in sacks (24), are tied for third in third­down per­cent­age (33.3) and are 10th in pass­ing yards per game (216.3).

“Well, our play­ers have re­sponded to a lot of dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties,’’ Duffner said. “We’ve put some guys in some spots based on a num­ber of things, in­juries and so forth. But the plus of it is we got a hun­gry group of guys, a bunch of guys who re­ally want the op­por­tu­nity to play, and when given that chance, so far they’ve re­sponded, and so we’re anx­ious to see that con­tinue.’’

The de­fense will face its big­gest test Sun­day again when the Bucs host the Saints, who are av­er­ag­ing 34.9 points per game, sec­ond most in the NFL.

Tampa Bay stunned New Or­leans 48-40 in Week 1, but

the Saints shook off the loss to win 10 games in a row. How­ever, they’re com­ing off a 13-10 loss at Dal­las on Nov. 29.

“They’re go­ing to come with some fire,’’ McCoy said.

For the first six weeks of the sea­son, the de­fense was the worst in the league. In­juries played a role. The pass rush was pro­duced mostly by Pierre-Paul, who had lit­tle help. Smith was fired af­ter a Week 6 loss to the Fal­cons with his de­fense al­low­ing an av­er­age 34.6 points per game.

En­ter Duffner, who de­buted by beat­ing the Browns 26-23 in over­time. But with line­backer Kwon Alexan­der go­ing on in­jured re­serve with a torn ACL suf­fered against the Browns and later line­backer Lavonte David miss­ing a few games with a knee sprain, the Bucs al­lowed 37 points to the Ben­gals and 42 points to the Pan­thers, both road losses.

McCoy thought the de­fense needed to be­come closer and be­gin bond­ing, so he or­ga­nized a din­ner.

“I’ve been do­ing this for a while, so it seemed like some­thing needed to be done, and I did it,’’ McCoy said. “As lit­tle as peo­ple think I do around here, I’m a lot smarter and savvier than peo­ple give me credit for. It seemed like some­thing needed to be done, and I did it, and to make it eas­ier on guys, just let them show up.

“I’m for­tu­nate enough to be able to set things up and make sure guys that showed up had a good time. That’s all it was. Lavonte did his part the fol­low­ing the week and so on and so forth. It’s been help­ful, and you see ev­i­dence of it.’’

Mean­while, Duffner and his staff needed to find a way to im­prove, es­pe­cially on third down with no lineback­ers who ex­celled in pass cov­er­age.

“You’re al­ways look­ing, as far as your scheme, to make the shoes fit the play­ers or vice versa,’’ Duffner said. “So we just felt like look­ing at our cur­rent avail­abil­ity of play­ers, that might be the way to go in terms of both pres­sure and cov­er­age and ev­ery­thing else on third down in par­tic­u­lar.’’

Adams, cut by the Gi­ants, joined the Bucs on Sept. 25 and be­gan be­ing used as a line­backer on third down in a dime pack­age with six de­fen­sive backs, pri­mary for his pass-cov­er­age skills. Sun­day against the Pan­thers, Adams’ role was ex­panded when Justin Evans left the game at half­time, forc­ing him to move to safety, where he in­ter­cepted three passes in a 24-17 win.

“An­drew in par­tic­u­lar is a foot­ball player,’’ Duffner said. “I mean, I’m not sure I’d put him at (de­fen­sive end) or (de­fen­sive tackle), but he is a guy who’s an in­stinc­tive foot­ball player and able to make plays.’’

The no-names started pro­duc­ing. Line­backer Kevin Min­ter, who was cut af­ter spend­ing only one week with the Bucs, re­turned Sun­day and recorded three tack­les and a sack in only four de­fen­sive snaps.

“We like that bat­ting av­er­age,’’ Duffner said.

When vet­eran Brent Grimes was un­able to play Sun­day due to a knee in­jury, the Bucs started Ryan Smith and De’Vante Harris at cor­ner­back. Harris had been cut by the Saints in the pre­sea­son and then waived in­jured by Tampa Bay be­fore be­ing re-signed in Oc­to­ber. He had three passes de­fensed against Carolina, bat­ting down a Hail Mary on the fi­nal play.

Duffner says young, hun­gry play­ers such as Javien El­liott, who was signed from the prac­tice squad and had a 50-yard in­ter­cep­tion re­turn Sun­day, have pro­vided some in­creased in­ten­sity.

“That’s what you love in coach­ing,’’ Duffner said. “You want the hun­gry player.’’

And Sun­days have be­come like Thurs­day nights — a de­fen­sive feed­ing frenzy.

JA­SON BEHNKEN AP

Six-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion Ger­ald McCoy leads a Buc­ca­neers de­fense that has been among the league’s best over the past six weeks.

MARK LO­MOGLIO AP

First-year Bucs Ja­son Pierre-Paul (90) and Vinny Curry have helped spark a pass rush that had been dor­mant in re­cent sea­sons.

JA­SON BEHNKEN AP

Tampa Bay cor­ner­back De’Vante Harris (22) breaks up a pass in­tended for Carolina wide re­ceiver Curtis Sa­muel (10) in Sun­day’s game.

JA­SON BEHNKEN AP

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mark Duffner has made key changes in the de­fen­sive scheme due to in­juries.

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