It was a tale of two seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on defense in 2019. Through the first half of the year, they were out of sorts, undisciplined, and unmotivated. But halfway through the schedule, they flipped the switch, and through the final eight games of the season went from a bottom-10 defense in the NFL to one of the top five.
Going into 2020, they looked strong up front. They were returning the NFL’s sack champ on the edge, had two of the best linebackers in the game, and had two of the most reliable and imposing defensive tackles. But the biggest question mark was certainly their cornerback group.
The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks were some of the youngest starting players in the league. Carlton Davis was the elder statesman of the group at just 23 years old, and was a player who hadn’t recorded an interception since his freshman season at Auburn. Sean Murphy-Bunting was still growing into a full-time role as a slot/outside hybrid player. Jamel Dean played well in 2019, but didn’t play until halfway through the season. Throwing the safeties in there, Jordan Whitehead was talked about by outsiders as a replacement-level player, Mike Edwards was only a spot starter before this season, and Antoine Winfield Jr. hadn’t played a snap yet.
Six games into 2020 and the Buccaneers may very well end Week 6 as the top unit in the NFL in DVOA against the pass and a top-three unit against the run, according to Football Outsiders, after a complete blanketing of the Green Bay Packers offense.
Going into the week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a top MVP candidate a quarter of the way through the season. Rodgers had thrown 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions through the team’s first four games, and was completing more than 70% of his passes while averaging more than 300 yards per game. On Sunday against the Buccaneers defense, Rodgers was held to just 160 passing yards, didn’t throw a single touchdown and threw two interceptions, one of which was a pick-six.
Tampa Bay made one of the best players in the NFL look about as bad as they possibly could in a season where no unit has been able to slow him down, let alone stop him. After giving up points on their first two series of the game, the Buccaneers defense flipped the switch in the form of a well-time pick-six from Dean. That was a wave of momentum that the Buccaneers rode all the way to the end, outscoring the Packers 38-0 from that point on.
As much as the secondary provided the big plays via the two interceptions, the Buccaneers’ incredible defensive performance was led by their linebackers, Lavonte David and Devin White. White led the team in tackles with nine, tackles for loss with three, and also added one sack and two quarterback hits. David was second on the team in tackles with six, racked up two tackles for loss himself, and led the team with a sack and half.
It was a true complete performance for the Buccaneers, which is what makes it so impactful and lasting. If it was one or two players showing out or even just one unit, those are the kinds of performances that can flip-flop throughout the season. But even without Vita Vea, the Buccaneers’ defensive line was as stout as they have been all season, holding the Packers to just 80 yards rushing between their three backs, including holding Aaron Jones to just 15 yards on 10 carries. That, combined with Rodgers’ worst stat line of the year, is what made it a statement performance.
The Packers made it look like it was just going to be another day at the office in the first quarter, as their first two drives, which gave them a 10-0 lead, took up nearly the entire first quarter and were 10 and 11 plays, respectively. Through the first two drives, Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, who was returning from injury, had three receptions on three targets for 33 yards; it looked like it might be a long day trying to contain him. But the Buccaneers defense was able to hold their bend-but-don’t-break mentality long enough for things to turn in their favor, and when it did, they stayed in attack mode all game and never gave Rodgers the chance to make it look easy.
That’s what I think gives this Buccaneers defense the chance to end the year as one of the best in the league, if not the best. It’s not just the high-impact plays, it’s how consistent they can be to play damage control when things aren't working as well as they would like them to, and how resilience can turn that into a total turn around at any point.
It was a special day for the Buccaneers defense, and it won’t be the last time we say that in 2020.
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