The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were really good at defense, leading to the only Super Bowl in Bucs history. That’s 15 years ago now, and it’s still true: since then and the 16 years before then, no defense was ever more efficient at stopping the pass than they were.
That, at least, is what Football Outsiders has consistently found over the years. And in their retrospective on 30 years of DVOA (their measure of efficiency) at ESPN, that’s still what they see. The 2002 Bucs’ somewhat lackluster run defense means they’re just the second-best overall defense, though, behind the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles.
This is the best pass defense of the past 30 years. According to DVOA, the Bucs were 51.9 percent more efficient than the baseline during the regular season. They allowed 4.5 net yards per pass, the third-best figure of the past 20 years. They allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 51 percent of passes. They led the league with 31 interceptions, nearly double the league average of 16.5. They were at their best in the most important situations: No. 1 in the red zone, No. 1 in the second half of close games, and No. 3 against the pass on third downs. Defensive end Simeon Rice, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks were all selected as first-team All-Pros, with linebacker Shelton Quarles and safety John Lynch joining them in the Pro Bowl.
That team was great, it’s also pretty awesome to watch. That turnover machine was incredible, and something the Bucs are trying to replicate now. That defense is also part of why I’m never all that interested in all that talk about stopping the run: you can have incredibly dominant defenses that are just so-so against the run. The key is to rush the passer and take away the football.
The Bucs will likely never replicate that defense, though, and they’re trying to be a little more balanced in their approach these days. They struggled against the run last year and, in part as a reaction to that result, they added a lot more big guys to their defensive line and linebacking corps this year.
We’ll see whether that strategy works. If the Bucs are going to win a Super Bowl again, that’ll depend largely on the offense’s performance anyway—defensive wins are rare enough as is, and the Bucs now have the offensive firepower to actually score points consistently. Amazing, I know.
Regardless of what happens going forward, it’s always fun to remember the team’s past achievements and how they got there—as well as the 2002 Bucs’ permanent place in NFL history.