Veteran pass-rushers, athletic LBs and big corners: How Todd Bowles’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was built

In the modern NFL, the ‘shut-down’ defense is rare. It’s simply hard to stop opponents from scoring points.

All but four offenses in the league averaged over 20 points per game this season, and five teams managed over 30 (the most ever).

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So what do we want from a defensive unit? It’s not to stop the opponent completely, instead more about providing your offense with one or two extra possessions per game with important stops or turnovers.

Be opportunistic. Be confusing. Cause chaos.

A scheme alone won’t cut it. The Andy Reids of the world can mastermind a plan to take advantage of holes there. Got great individual players? There will always be a weak link, and we know a Tom Brady (or Patrick Mahomes) will pick on that player time and time again.

A ‘great’ defense in today’s NFL swarms you. It has speed, it rushes to the ball, and it forces turnovers. Get to the quarterback, make them make mistakes, and step up on important downs.

This season, and specifically in the postseason, Todd Bowles’ Buccaneers defense has done just that.

In the Wild Card round against Washington, Sean Murphy-Bunting’s first-quarter interception directly led to an Antonio Brown touchdown and a 9-0 lead. Tampa Bay forced four three-and-outs and came up big on fourth down with two minutes remaining to get the ball back.

In New Orleans, the defensive unit ran rampant. Murphy-Bunting’s pick put the Bucs at the three-yard line. Touchdown. Devin White scooped up a Jared Cook fumble and took it across midfield late in the third quarter. What happened on the ensuing possession? Touchdown. Two possessions later, White had an interception of his own and reached New Orleans’ 20-yard line. Within four plays, Tom Brady found the end zone.

It certainly continued in the NFC Championship game. Murphy-Bunting’s interception led to a score, as did White’s fumble recovery, and the D stepped up to force two three-and-outs in the fourth quarter before holding Aaron Rodgers and company out of the end zone (for three downs, at least) in their final possession.

This is the modern NFL winning defense, and these are the people who make it tick.

Defensive coordinator

Todd Bowles is what we can safely call an NFL veteran. Eight seasons as a player (including a Super Bowl win). 20 seasons as a coach – four as a head coach and four as defensive coordinator. He knows what he is doing.

In his two years with the Bucs, he has worked wonders. He took a unit that was bottom nine in yards against (383.4), passing yards against (259.4), rushing yards against (123.9) and points against (29.2) in 2018 and has turned them into one of the league’s elite.

2019 saw Bowles’ emphasis on stopping the run immediately become reality as they held opponents to a league-low 73.8 yards per game on the ground. But the passing D showed no improvement, finishing 30th out of 32 with over 270 yards per game allowed.

It left the team middle of the pack in terms of overall yardage against (343.9, 15th) but they weren’t helped by Jameis Winston and the calamitous attack. The offense gave the ball away a massive 41 times in 2019 – by far the most in the NFL – and opponents capitalised. The Bucs allowed 28.1 points per game, 28th in the league.

This season, the improvement has been clear, and they owe some thanks to Brady and the offense turning the ball over just 17 times. Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in yards against, points against, sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles. They retained their title of the best team against the run. Although the passing defense remained a statistical weak spot, they improved (246.6, 21st) and have been outstanding the further into the season we’ve gone.

Defensive line

In Bowles’ 3-4 system, the defensive line does the dirty work while the playmakers behind them rack up the numbers. Veterans William Gholston and Ndamukong Suh man the interior for Tampa Bay consistently. While they won’t often appear on the highlight reel (nine sacks combined), they are pure disruptors, and led the team with 20 and 19 QB hits, respectively.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon won’t turn heads with their stats but play crucial roles for this No 1-ranked rushing D. The wild card is third-year DT Vita Vea, who had high expectations heading into the season but suffered fractures to his right leg and ankle against Chicago in Week Five. He returned against the Packers to play 46 per cent of defensive snaps – watch out for No 50 on Sunday.

Outside linebackers

In his younger days, Jason Pierre-Paul racked up the sacks. 16.5 in 2011, 12.5 in 2014. Oh, and he was on the New York Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI-winning D-line that toppled Brady and the Patriots in February 2012.

After leaving New York, JPP has been outstanding for the Bucs since signing in 2018. Over three seasons and 40 starts, he has 30.5 sacks. His 9.5 this season lead the team in 2020.

Last season, however, the standout was Shaq Barrett. After leaving Denver with a Super Bowl ring, the former undrafted free agent signed just a one-year deal with the Bucs. Boy, did it work out.

Barrett broke Hall of Famer Warren Sapp’s franchise record by racking up a league-leading 19.5 sacks, along with 58 tackles, six forced fumbles and an interception. It was a supreme season, and although he has regressed while playing under the franchise tag (8 sacks in 2020), he is still a disruptive force.

Just ask Patrick Mahomes, whom Barrett strip-sacked when the teams met in Week 12. This week, Mahomes said of Barrett: “He’s right up there at the top (as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL) … I have to make sure I know where he is on each and every play.”

Inside linebackers

The middle of the Bucs’ D is anchored by a veteran, but spearheaded by a young star. Both Lavonte David and Devin White played over 92 per cent of the snaps this year, and unsurprisingly, finished first and second in tackles.

While David, now in his ninth season with the team, has been a consistent tackling machine, amassing over 1,000 combined over the course of his career, White has exploded onto the scene.

Last year’s fifth overall pick flies around the field, sideline to sideline, north and south. His 140 regular-season tackles ranked fifth in the NFL. His nine sacks were the most by any middle linebacker, and 18 tackles for losses ranked in the top four.

White’s ascension has continued in the postseason as he has the most tackles on playoff teams (26, over just two games!), as well as an interception and two fumble recoveries. He is a game-changer.

Secondary

This group is not afraid to come up and hit, and it is fun to watch.

Carlton Davis (6-1, 206 lbs), Jamel Dean (6-1, 206), and Sean Murphy-Bunting (6-0, 195) are physical corners. Safeties Antoine Winfield Jr and Jordan Whitehead have been limited in practice this week but rookie Winfield Jr says he will be good to go. If either or both do miss time, Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams are talented backups waiting in the wings.

What is particularly impressive is how this unit was built. Over the last three years, the team has invested heavily here. Davis (second round, 2018), Dean (third, 2019), Murphy-Bunting (second, 2019), Winfield Jr (second, 2020) Whitehead (fourth round, 2018) and Edwards (third, 2019) are all home-grown talents, and improving game by game.

Overall, Bowles’ defense is fast, physical, and aggressive. They are playing their best football of the season at the right time, and they come up against the league’s top attack on Sunday. Will they be the difference?

Join us on Sky Sports NFL and Main Event from 10pm on Sunday, February 7 for 90 minutes of Super Bowl LV build-up with Kirk Cousins, Dallas Clark and Cliff Avril joining Neil Reynolds and company; Sky One will broadcast the game from 11pm.

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