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Resurgent Buccaneers defense masking offensive issues

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not a good team, but it's not because of their defense. It's the offense.

Al Messerschmidt

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a good defense. Football Outsiders' latest DVOA ratings have them as the sixth-best unit in the NFL. They're remarkably balanced: 8th against the pass and 8th against the run, a far cry from last year's top run defense and close to NFL-worst pass defense. That's perhaps not obvious: a lot of criticism has been levelled at the defense, at the stunts, blitzes, the lack of sacks and the coverage busts. But overall, if we look at the actual performance, the defense has done very well over the season.

That wasn't always the case this year. The defense collapsed by midseason. It was ranked 17th by Football Outsiders by week nine, the low point of the year. That was when the Bucs were 0-8, had just given up 27+ points to its past four opponents and had been crushed by the Eagles, Panthers and even the Eagles. That was when the cries for Greg Schiano's head were greatest. Since then, the defense has improved by leaps and bounds.

Still, this defense has its issues. It can't regularly get to the quarterback rushing four players, with Gerald McCoy being the only player to regularly beat his opponent. Stephen White has detailed many of the schematic and playcalling issues, with badly designed or called stunts and blitzes being major parts of a defense when they shouldn't be. In fact, it wasn't until the Bucs started blitzing and stunting less that their defense improved significantly.

There's also the question of how predictive this performance is. It's built largely on the ability to force turnovers, with the Bucs allowing a 17th-ranked 6.2 yards per attempt and a similarly 17th-ranked 4.2 yards per carry. Turnovers are very volatile season-to-season and even game-to-game (see this past weekend, for instance). That's because turnovers are relatively isolated incidents dependent on a lot of luck: a tipped balling into Lavonte David's hands, a fumble bouncing the right way, a defender dropping or not dropping a ball thrown right to him.

There's an element of skill to turnovers, but the element of luck makes it hard to count on turnovers as a basis for any defense. That's why the Saints defense collapsed after their 2009 Super Bowl run. That's why there's a lot of volatility in year-to-year defensive performance (making the Bucs' '97-'03 defensive performance even more remarkable).

Still, the Bucs defense is now good enough to get them to the playoffs -- if only the offense wasn't a total disaster right now. They certainly have the talent to be very good, with the best defensive tackle, 4-3 linebacker and cornerback in the NFL on the same defense -- plus some very good safeties, and a decent middle linebacker.

So why aren't they in the playoffs? Because their offense is awful. The offensive line is once again struggling to open up holes, although they're decent in pass protection. Mike Glennon has regressed a little, and is now refusing to make throws that are there to be made, especially in the middle of the field. Vincent Jackson is the lone wide receiver consistently winning, and he's not  helped by Glennon's refusal to put up balls for him to make contested catches. Tim Wright is a dangerous receiver, but he can't block a linebacker to safe his life, let alone a defensive end. And, of course, the scheme has been puzzling for most of the season.

That has to improve this season, but then the defense can't be neglected either, lest it collapse. That's a tough balancing act. Will you grab a tight end or wide receiver at the top of the draft to help Mike Glennon? Will you try to improve on Glennon? Will you look for a (future) replacement for Donald Penn? Should edge rusher not be priority? These are not easy questions to answer, and Mark Dominik (or a new general manager) will have some tough decisions to make this offseason. Which should make for yet another intriguing year in Tampa.