The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the best run defense in the NFL, if Football Outsiders and several other measures can be believed. Stopping Jamaal Charles, the NFL's leading rusher and a back who has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over his career, was an impressive achievement. The Bucs limited him to just 40 yards on 12 carries, for an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
That game wasn't a fluke. The Buccaneers have allowed opposing backs to rush for only 375 yards, a figure that ranks them fourth in the league, and they've allowed just 3.1 yards per rush attempt - leading the league in that category. Interestingly, they also lead the NFL in run defense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted measure. In fact, despite allowing 1,936 total yards on defense, Football Outsiders ranks the defense as a whole sixth. That striking difference occurs because of opponent adjustments, and because total yardage allowed isn't a very good measure of the quality of a defense.
All of this represents a massive change from last year, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sported what was the second-worst run defense in the NFL, allowing a ridiculous 5.0 yards per carry and a league-leading 2,497 yards on the ground. That happened despite the fact that the Bucs were actually fairly successful at stopping the run early on in 2011.
So what changed? Various different factors doomed last year's defense, injuries, poor defensive discipline and horrendous tackling were the most notable issues facing that defense. All of those have been fixed this year: Gerald McCoy and Mason Foster have stayed healthy, while Roy Miller and Michael Bennett have further elevated their level of play. The defense is disciplined in staying in their gaps and, most importantly, the players are tackling well. Replacing Tanard Jackson and Sean Jones with Ronde Barber and Mark Barron has meant a tremendous upgrade in run defense, as missed tackles are few and far between while Barron brings a physical presence that Jones did not have.
Having upgraded the run defense, the Bucs are starting to play better on the back end as well. They had a very good game against the Dallas Cowboys, and have consistently produced turnovers. Unfortunately, the pass defense suffered a blow with Aqib Talib's suspension. More importantly, the players are still adjusting to the new scheme, as we've seen one or two blown coverages in nearly every game so far. Ronde Barber has been the culprit on more than a few of those, but as the players become more familiar with the defense we should see fewer of those mistakes - and a better defense because of it.
Buc Ball appears to be back. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back to playing good defense, and have the best run defense in the NFL to lean on. That defense and an occasionally explosive but inconsistent offense have allowed the Bucs to keep every game close, despite a losing record. Buc Ball will get these Buccaneers their wins in the end.