TAMPA, MAR 28, 2018 – The old expression “Defense Wins Championships” for many years rang true in the NFL, with teams employing a suffocating, turnover-inducing attack winning the Lombardi more times than not – the ’85 Bears, ‘00 Ravens and ‘15 Broncos come immediately to mind. Let’s also not forget the ’02 Tampa Bay Bucs, whose #1 Ranked Defense throttled the #1 Ranked Offense of the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
For Bucs fans, memories of that Championship have grown quite distant, as most bandwagoners will readily throw out that nearly forgotten win to support any argument about how ‘Great’ their team is… or at least… WAS…
In Tampa, it is indeed WAS…
This past year of2017, Tampa’s Pass Defense gave up the most yards per game (ypg), as their opposition exposed them as THE WORST DEFENSE in the league. Opponents passed for 260.6ypg and 4,169 total yards (league highs) along with a 36.8 first down percentage (fourth worst in the NFL). Tampa’s Defensive Line was 10th in the league in rush defense, giving up an average of 117.5 ypg. Effectively they were in the top third in the NFL (and fourth by team in the NFC) for rush D, but only because most opponents instead threw for success against the Pewter Pirates. When rushing the passer, they showed major weaknesses, being LAST in the NFL with a total of 22 sacks on the year. Let me say that again… 22 sacks the entire year! No wonder they took a step (or four) back from their 2016 showing, being on the cusp of the playoffs.
The Bucs were paced by their perennial Pro Bowler, Gerald McCoy, with six sacks, or 27% of their entire sack production. Free Agent lineman Clinton McDonald, McCoy’s line mate at tackle, had five sacks and is on the open market looking for a new team. Historically, defensive ends and rush linebackers usually lead their teams in sack production, but for the Bucs, Ends accounted for 8.5 sacks combined, with linebackers notching another two QB snatches. Tackle Chris Baker, the high-priced free agent addition signed to strengthen the Bucs’ line, had a paltry one-half sack. Needless to say, Baker has been kicked to the curb after an unimpressive season in Tampa.
So prior to free agency, the Bucs were left with McCoy and little else in the cupboard for help – Ends Will Clark, William Gholston, Patrick O’Conner, Channing Ward and Noah Spence, along with Tackles DaVonte Lambert and Stevie Tu’ikolavatu. Spence at least showed a lot of promise prior to his injury last year, but wasn’t expected to make Hall of Fame, if not Pro Bowl strides in 2018.
What to do… what to do…??
Probably the easiest decision for General Manager Jason Licht was to raid the league of vagabond rushing and stuffing rebels’ intent on a climate change in their favor… or who wouldn’t like to spend their winters in Florida vice Minnesota… Wisconsin… New York… or possibly Pennsylvania? In fact, why not poach talent from the most recent Super Bowl Champion? And if that wasn’t enough, how about snagging a former Super Bowl Champion who also happens to be a local idol in the Tampa Bay area?
Enter Beau Allen and Vinny Curry, late of the Philadelphia Eagles… and Jason Pierre-Paul (J.P.P. as he’s more widely known), standout defensive end from the New York Giants and legendary USF Bull. Not bad grabbing from the NFC East with their dynamic playoff pedigree, with dividends for the Bucs expected in short order.
Allen had 20 tackles and a sack for the Eagles in 2017, along with two tackles in the Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. In his four-year career, all with Philadelphia, Allen amassed 87 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery, but most importantly he’s an enforcing cog stuffing the line against rushers while pressuring the quarterback from the inside. Curry, another career Eagle with six seasons in Philly, has totaled 130 tackles, 22 sacks, five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. In 2017, Curry pinned opposing quarterbacks’ three-times, along with garnering 42 total tackles (25 solo), both career highs, and four more tackles against the Pats in Super Bowl LII. Curry’s high-motor rushing from the outside is expected to wreak havoc against opposing tackles and chipping tight ends and backs trying to keep him from preying on QBs.
Probably the biggest move by Licht was the trade bringing J.P.P. back to Tampa, with the Bucs dispatching a 3rd round pick (and swapping 4th round choices) to the Giants, welcoming the Deerfield Beach native back to the Sunshine State. J.P.P. played for USF only one year, having transferred from two smaller colleges in California and Kansas prior, but his numbers as a Bull were sensational – 45 tackles (16.5 for losses), three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, a pick-6 interception touchdown and 6.5 sacks. Named First Team All-America by Pro Football Weekly and First Team All-Big East Conference, he was a natural first round pick at #15 in 2010 by the Giants.
Pierre-Paul spent his entire eight-year career with the Giants, tutored by standout defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, and that knowledge reaped a First Team All-Pro honor, two Pro Bowls, and a Super Bowl championship ring as the Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. For his career, J.P.P. has 433 total tackles, 58 sacks, 16 forced fumbles with seven fumble recoveries, six interceptions and five defensive touchdowns. Most notably, he is only 29years old and won’t turn 30 until New Year’s Day 2019. His expected production at End should tower over any numbers the Bucs’ third round pick this year would’ve brought. Jason Licht indeed pulled a major coup in this trade.
Sack totals for Allen, Curry and J.P.P. in 2017 (12.5) nearly equal the number of Bucs’ sacks by players not named McCoy, and their production with incumbents Spence and a surprise player or two undetermined should propel Tampa Bay’s Defensive Line to fearful totals in 2018. They may not be the Steel Curtain… Fearsome Foursome… or the Purple People Eaters of old, but the Bucs should be bringing a powerful explosion of havoc against wary offensive lines this next year.
Combined with steady play from their capable linebackers and an expected revival in backfield effort, the Bucs’ D may once again dictate a path beyond respectability. At the very least, they shouldn’t again be the worst team in the NFC South, as the Saints, Panthers and Falcons know their division games will no longer be walkovers. With J.P.P. and Curry attacking the offense’s flanks while McCoy and Allen push the middle, Tampa Bay’s Defensive Line, and Defense as a whole may once again be a unit feared throughout the league.
Jay “Captain Jack” Levy, BCP Contributor