Tom Brady was looking for a change of scenery, so like any well-to-do Northeasterner nearing retirement, he set his sights on Florida. It was a shocking development when the six-time Super Bowl winner left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in March. When he was joined by the newly unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski, it became clear Tampa Bay was having a moment. Today, The Ringer is breaking down all things Bucs, from Brady’s learning curve with a new team to the great Gronk revival, and whether a moribund franchise can resurrect itself with Brady at the helm.
When Tom Brady joined the Buccaneers, leaguewide attention shifted to Tampa Bay’s offense. Bruce Arians’s offensive attack is set to be one of the most dynamic units in the NFL with two of the best receivers in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to go with Rob Gronkowski, who unretired to join Brady. The “Tompa Bay” moniker is well-founded. Even with all the offensive firepower, though, the defense will have to produce as well for this team to reach the heights it envisions.
For Tampa Bay, the phrase “defense wins championships” is more than just a cliché. Defense is what powered the franchise’s lone Super Bowl run. The 2002 Bucs boasted five defensive All-Pros: defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, defensive backs Ronde Barber and John Lynch, and linebacker Derrick Brooks. Their unit dismantled the Raiders—who boasted the league’s second-best offense—in a 48-21 drubbing, and the Bucs intercepted a Super Bowl–record five passes before hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy.
Brady can attest to the importance of defense, too. Despite Brady’s own greatness, it’s undeniable that Bill Belichick’s defenses played a role in elevating the Patriots during several Super Bowl victories. So even if Brady and the Bucs offense are dominant, their defense needs to be at least serviceable. Is it? What does Tampa Bay have in its current defensive side and how does it compare to past Patriots units that played opposite Brady? The answers could be the difference between success and failure for the upstart Bucs.
Is Tampa Bay’s defense good?
There’s plenty to like about the Bucs defense. Last season, first-year defensive coordinator Todd Bowles changed Tampa Bay from a 4-3 base to a blitz-heavy, one-gap 3-4 scheme, and it paid dividends. The Bucs blitzed on 43.4 percent of defensive plays (no. 2 in NFL), per Pro Football Reference. They jumped from no. 32 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA metric in 2018 to no. 5 last year. They also ranked no. 1 in rush defense in 2019, allowing 73.8 rushing yards per game—an ode to the talented front seven built by general manager Jason Licht.
The Bucs defense begins with their front seven, and that group looks strong coming into 2020. This offseason, Tampa Bay re-signed star veteran defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh on a one-year deal for the second summer in a row. The team also re-signed outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who registered 8.5 sacks and 16 QB hits last season, to a two-year deal. Pass rusher Shaq Barrett joined as a free agent last year, and broke out to lead the Bucs with 19.5 sacks during the 2019 season, and was then franchise-tagged this offseason. Linebacker Devin White shined in his rookie season, compiling 91 total tackles (second most on the team), three forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. White proved to be the perfect complement to veteran linebacker Lavonte David, who’s quietly been one of the league’s best defenders for several years. This offseason, the Bucs have worked to get David, who’s entering the final year of his contract, signed to an extension.
At the center of Tampa Bay’s stout defense is nose tackle Vita Vea. The 2018 first-round pick finished last season on a strong note, registering a 79.9 run-defense grade and an 83.9 pass-rushing grade from weeks 12 through 17, per Pro Football Focus. He also notched multiple quarterback pressures in each of his final six games and closed the year with an 87.5 PFF pass-rushing grade—both impressive feats for a young 6-foot-4 and 347-pound nose tackle.
Vita Vea out here showin' off his swim moves like a sixth grader at the community pool trying to impress their crush during summer break.— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) November 26, 2019
Clean sack here for the big man. pic.twitter.com/VdIVex8iS4
While Tampa Bay’s front seven was dominant last season, the secondary wasn’t always as solid. The Bucs gave up the second-most air yards (2,906) and completions (408) to opposing passers last year, and ranked 20th in PFF’s team pass coverage grade (70.1). But there were flashes of potential within that unit. Cornerback Carlton Davis, a 2018 second-round pick, emerged as a talented defender, leading the league in PFF’s forced incompletions metric (22). The Bucs paired Davis with 2019 second-rounder Sean Murphy-Bunting, who started 10 games last year and was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team. Cornerback Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards also contributed in regular roles during their rookie seasons last season, and the expectation is that both can improve in their second year.
Despite not addressing the secondary in free agency, Tampa Bay made a move to bolster the unit in the draft. The Bucs used their 2020 second-round pick on University of Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who was revered as one of the top defensive playmakers in the draft after registering seven interceptions last season with the Golden Gophers. Winfield, the son of former All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., has impressed thus far at camp, and he appears set to assume starting duties sooner than later, according to The Athletic’s Greg Auman. “Antoine is making plays every single day,” Arians told reporters last week.
Antoine Winfield Jr., SAF, Minnesota:— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) March 4, 2020
• Definition of a “football player”
• Football DNA
• Nickel/SS/FS/Rover versatility (++)
• Physical/Downhill striker
• Scrappy/Tough as nails
• A+ ball skills (+)
• Pattern matching recognition (+) pic.twitter.com/Cgl7qWxJK5
Entering the season, it’s clear that the Bucs have the core makings of what could become one of the NFL’s top defensive units. They have top-notch defensive line play, a pair of dynamic linebackers, and high-potential players in the secondary. Things will need to come together quickly for Tampa Bay to achieve its ultimate goal.
How does Tampa Bay’s defense compare to Brady’s Patriots defensive units?
The Patriots’ defense was their strength last year, setting a team record for fewest points allowed in a single season and leading the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (14). New England set an NFL record for fewest third-down conversions (47 of 195) allowed and lowest third-down percentage (24.1 percent). For the first time in the Brady Era, the Patriots defense ranked no. 1 in defensive DVOA. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore won Defensive Player of the Year. The defense was so obviously good that Brady even acknowledged that the unit was the team’s strength.
New England’s defense was typically impressive during Brady’s 20-year tenure. The Patriots held opponents to an average of 20 points or fewer in 13 seasons since 2001, the most by any franchise in that span. They ranked in the top 10 of takeaways in 11 seasons in that stretch, too. New England also found regular success limiting opposing passers, cracking the top 12 of opposing completion percentage in 13 seasons.
The Patriots defense’s average DVOA ranking during Brady’s overall tenure as a starter was 15.1. The efficiency metric didn’t favorably grade the unit throughout the near two decades’ worth of data, and in six title-winning seasons, New England’s defense ranked in the top 10 of defensive DVOA only twice (2003 and 2004). As aforementioned, Tampa Bay graded out well in this metric last year, skyrocketing into fifth.
But while the Patriots were rarely too impressive in DVOA, they shined in other stats. Since 2001, New England never finished worse than 17th in points allowed; Tampa Bay ranked 29th last year, allowing 28.1 points per game. It’s noteworthy that the Bucs boasted the no. 3 scoring offense (28.6 ppg) and ranked third in explosive pass rate, according to Warren Sharp’s database. Playing such an aggressive style of football on both sides of the ball led to those statistics being so extreme.
It was often feast or famine for Tampa Bay’s offense last season—and that often made life hard on the team’s defense. Jameis Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete a 30-touchdown, 30-interception season, which included a league-record seven pick-sixes. That volatility contributed to the Bucs defense finishing 32nd in Football Outsiders’ LOS/Drive metric, which represents the average starting field position per drive. Tampa Bay’s defense notched an average of 31.7. New England finished first in that category (25.18), in part because Brady took care of the ball, throwing only eight interceptions last year that accounted for 1.3 percent of his throws. Brady has never thrown more than 14 picks in a single season, so the Bucs offense is expected to be more careful with the football, which should give the defense longer fields. That bodes well for a unit that did well against the run.
The Bucs struggled against opposing pass offenses, ranking 30th in pass defense and 24th in opponent explosive pass rate, per Sharp’s database. Youth and aggressiveness played a role, but the team didn’t generate many interceptions; Tampa Bay’s 16 fumble recoveries ranked second last year, and that stat is why it finished fifth in forced turnovers. The Bucs also faced some successful, pass-happy offenses last year. Five of Tampa Bay’s nine losses came against teams with top-10 passing attacks. The Falcons and Saints made that list, and the Bucs will face them each at least twice again this year. The Panthers, who were middling with Kyle Allen under center last season, could be due for an improvement in their passing game following the acquisition of Teddy Bridgewater and hiring of coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
As the chart above reveals, a lacking passing defense can be overcome if Tom Brady is leading the other side of the ball. The Patriots won four of six titles with a pass defense that ranked 17th or worse in that category. The Bucs’ only championship was won when they ranked first in pass defense and fifth in rush defense. Tampa Bay’s run defense, statistically, isn’t that far away as things stand. But the pass defense has some steps toward improvement. Assuming there’s growth within the Bucs’ young secondary, there’s potential for the group to emerge as one of the NFL’s better defenses. Brady and Co. are hopeful that’s the case.