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The Buccaneers defense bends, but does not break

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Tampa Bay’s defense is carrying on a trend from last year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense has been giving up yards this year, but very few scores, as they did last year. THey continued that trend against the New England Patriots.

Preview stats

What transpired

The Bucs defense gave up more passing yards and more rushing yards to the Patriots’ offense. Using those two stats would suggest that New England would have also scored more than their average of 32.3 points per game, but they did not. Tampa employed a “bend, but don’t break” philosophy against this potent Patriots’ offense and it did its job well to limit a Tom Brady led offense.

Pass Plays: 40 (63.5%)

Run Plays: 23 (36.5%)

Drive Chart

The Good

Obviously limiting the second highest scoring offense in the league under 20 points is a very good thing that should give the team a chance to win. The operative word in that sentence is should.

The defense created two turnovers, a sack-fumble and an interception. The interception was Brady’s first interception on the season, five games worth, and it was to rookie safety Justin Evans, who had his very first start in this game.

Third down defense was great as it only allowed four conversions out of 12 opportunities, a rate of 33.3%. In that third down defense, Tampa induced three three-and-outs and one four-and-out, which gave the Bucs offense a glimmer of a chance to win the game. In my By the Box Preview of this game, New England ranked 7th overall in third down conversions at a 44.4% rate.

Red Zone defense was also very good in that it limited a top scoring offense to only one touchdown in three Red Zone opportunities.

The Bad

In a mid-week press conference, DC Mike Smith pointed out that while the third down defense was great, the second down defense was not so great as it would give up a lot of yards in situations where it would be 2nd down-and-10+ yards to go. A part of the reason would be softer coverage as well as lack of support from its underneath coverage by the linebackers.

The Ugly

All the yards given up through the air and the ground would be considered ugly and it does look very ugly. Yet that was all by design as the ultimate goal is to prevent the opposing offense from scoring a high point total. This was the first time the Patriots were held to under 20 points all season. The fewest points scored by the Patriots this year was 27 points in a losing game.

Special Teams induced NE Scoring Opportunities

Looking at the drive chart above, there were two drives where NE scored and only traversed a maximum of 22 yards. Fortunately, the scoring was mitigated to only field goals as opposed to touchdowns being gifted great field position. One of these events was a self-inflicted wound and the other was a gamble to steal a possession to win the game.

Drive 6:

Bryan Anger kicked the ball 56 yards through the air and Danny Amendola caught the ball at the NE 18 yard line. Amendola weaved through the Bucs’ special teams coverage for 40 yards, which would put the ball at the TB 42 yard line.

That was not the end of the dismal special teams play. Bucs’ gunner, Ryan Smith, was pushed out-of-bounds and Smith did not attempt to run back inbounds for a couple of seconds. Because Smith was out-of-bounds, New England’s kick return team could not touch, push, or re-direct Smith’s path. That resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Another 15 yards would be tacked onto the end of the kick return for 40 yards due to the penalty. The ball went from the TB 42 yard line to the TB 27 yard line after the penalty. Eventually, the Patriots kicked a FG in the Red Zone.

Drive 11:

Tampa had just scored a touchdown to make the score NE 16, TB 14. There was only 2:09 left in the game. HC Koetter elected to do an on-sides kick to steal a possession away from the Patriots and give his offense a chance to win the game with over two minutes left on the clock as well as take advantage of the two-minute official timeout in the game. The attempt failed and gifted the ball to New England at the TB 42 yard line.

Once again, the special teams unit committed another penalty. The penalty was an off-sides penalty that added five more yards. The new line of scrimmage was now at the TB 37 yard line. The defense held the Patriots offense to attempt a 48 yard FG, which was successful. Those additional five yards could have presented a 53 yard FG attempt.

Earlier in the second half, Bill Belichick was presented with a situation on 4th down: attempt a FG or punt the ball. It was 4th and 12 yards to go with the ball at the TB 33 yard line. The FG attempt would have been a 51-yard FG attempt. Belichick elected to punt the ball. So those additional five yards given to the Patriots’ offense gifted by a special teams’ penalty took away the opportunity that the Bucs could be down only 2 points rather than 5 points.

On the Bucs last offensive drive, the offense covered 56 yards in 1:10 with three seconds left in the game. With the ball on the NE 19 yard line, the Bucs could have attempted a 37-yard field goal. This scenario would have been similar to last week’s game against the NY Giants, Bucs’ kicker Nick Folk struggling all game to make a field goal, but was successful on the last try to win the game.

I rarely cover the special teams unit in depth, but these two special team’s plays hurt the Bucs’ chances to win a game where the offense was struggling or most of the game.

Passing Defense Down

I am all about patterns. In my previous Defensive Drive Analysis for the NY Giants game, I noticed how all three touchdowns scored on the Bucs’ defense has one commonality – the Bucs’ backup linebackers were all picked upon, which includes the highly acclaimed rookie Kendell Beckwith.

Then Mike Smith commented about lack of underneath coverage support for the NE game this past week. Recall how bad Kwon Alexander was in coverage early in 2016 under DC Smith’s defense? Kwon was always in between where he should be. After a few games, then things clicked. That speed of Kwon is what makes him so great in coverage. That is something that none of the backups have.

How can our passing defense be so terrible this year compared to last year? One huge factor could be missing our top linebackers in Kwon and Lavonte David (LVD). So I decided to look back at the first game of the season against the Bears. Kwon only notched 17 plays, or 27% of the defensive plays. In only 17 plays, Alexander had one tackle and one interception. That interception came in the first drive where Chicago looked unstoppable throwing the ball until the defense made an adjustment with Kwon’s objective. Unfortunately, Kwon fell to injury and has not been on the field since. The Bears offense could not do much until later into the game and produced three long drives through the air. Glennon may have exposed a flaw in this defense with Kwon missing for other teams to exploit.

Kwon is the middle linebacker and defensive play caller. Although rookie Beckwith has been receiving praises he has earned in the run game, he cannot make up for the experience nor coverage skills that Kwon has with a year under his belt for Smith’s defense and two years in the league. In only 17 plays of the 2017 season (27% of one game), Kwon has one interception. In four games, Beckwith has one pass defends and zero interceptions.

2016 Football Outsiders Defensive Rankings

Overall: 13th Pass Def: 6th Rush Def: 26th

2017 Football Outsiders Defensive Rankings

Overall: 22nd Pass Def: 27th Rush Def: 6th

This past week,both Kwon and LVD have been reported to have returned to practice in limited action. Lavone David might play, though Alexander has been ruled out, but the fact they are practicing again can give the defense even more hope of returning to the a very good passing defense soon.

Conclusion

After four games, I can better assess the Bucs defense because the first two games presented a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performance. Injuries and inexperience have plagued the Bucs defense after the first game of the season. With more games under their belts, DC Mike Smith has been adjusting his players accordingly and improved since the second game massacre on the defense.

The defense did its job. They limited the second highest scoring offense at a rate of 32.3 points per game to only 19 points. If you exclude the two gifts by the special teams, then the Patriots high powered offense would have potentially only scored 12 points. One of those special teams gift was actually induced because HC Koetter did not want to play complementary football. With 3:42 left on the clock and RB Doug Martin rushing about 8 yards per run up to that point, Koetter went to his inconsistent quarterback. All that occurred was a three-and-out Bucs’ offensive drive that led to the New England scoring opportunity, which they netted 3 points.

This impressive outing by the defense was done with rookie safety, Justin Evans, starting his first game, and backup linebackers starting in Kendall Beckwith at Mike, Adarius Glanton at Will, and Devante Bond at Sam. The defense limited a top scoring offense to one touchdown and four field goals. Holding an opponent to 19 points and winning the turnover battle with two Bucs’ defensive turnovers generated should have given the Bucs a vastly greater chance to win the game. The interception was by Justin Evans and the sack-fumble was by Glanton. Last year, the Bucs won every game they held an opponent under 20 points, and that was with an offense without RG JR Sweezy, WR DeSean Jackson, TE OJ Howard, and WR Chris Godwin.

If you had listened to DT Gerald McCoy speak after the game, one would have that that the Bucs defense did not do their job. McCoy kept intimating that the defense needed to do more. In my By the Box Preview for the New England game, I never thought the Bucs defense could handle the high powered offense of the Patriots and thought it would be a shootout between the offenses. Instead, the Bucs defense forced one interception, one sack-fumble, and allowed only one touchdown. The Bucs defense did what no other defense has done in the previous four games… limited the New England Patriots and Brady to under 20 points. Yet, many will still say the Bucs defense did not do its job.