TAMPA – Can you feel it? The popping of the pads, the smell of the grass, the sights of fans clamoring for autographs, the sounds of coaches whistles. The 2017-18 NFL season is upon us as training camps all across the country are taking place in the August heat, humidity and tropical downpours in some cases. The hometown Buccaneers are entering year two of Dirk Koetter at the head coach position along with the face of the franchise, Jameis Winston entering his third season. The Bucs finished at 9-7 in Koetter’s first season and were firmly in the hunt for the postseason until week sixteen. For fans that have been waiting months since the final whistle sounded on their beloved squad’ season on New Years Day, next Friday, August 11th cannot get here fast enough. That’s when the Bucs will get after it against the Bengals up in Cincinnati.
While the offensive side of the ball seemingly has all of the firepower it needs to make this season a raging success, when you think of Tampa Bay Buccaneer Football, you (should) think defense. The Bucs Defense was vastly improved under Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith in his second season. They were tenth best in total yards given up, tied for fourth in interceptions, tied for ninth in sacks, and tied for first in defensive touchdowns in 2016–but most agree those numbers will need to get better in order to stay in the hunt in what is arguably the league’s most-feared division from an offensive perspective.
There isn’t a single week off when you lineup against Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees six times a season. This season, that schedule demands those mentioned plus dates with Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford. The trio of Manning-Brady-Palmer come in consecutive weeks along with a finish of Matt Ryan twice, Rodgers, Stafford, Newton and Brees in the final six weeks of the season. Keeping that in mind, what more important to the Bucs this season? Elite safety/cornerback play? Or dominating defensive line performances? The obvious answer is both, but what happens if you can only get one?
The Bucs picked off opposing quarterbacks 17 times last season with CB Brent Grimes and Safety Keith Tandy leading the way with four each. As mentioned earlier, that was good for a T-5 finish. Tandy, along with Chris Conte and Bradley McDouglad combined for over 200 tackles last season, but can they sustain, if not improve, on those numbers for an entire season? Depends on who you’re asking, but at least for now, the head coach thinks things are headed in the right direction.
“Keith Tandy, Chris Conte are real solid. Just doing what we’d expect them to do right now,” said Koetter after Wednesday’s practice following the day off on Tuesday. While it’s imperative the Bucs get at the very minimum from Tandy and Conte this season, the general consensus outside of camp is that this is still a position that needs to get better as a whole.
One important piece to the defensive success of this Bucs team is the development of CB Vernon Hargreaves III, who had a pretty nice day on Wednesday. With Brent Grimes out there providing veteran leadership, VH3 appears to be coming around nicely. Both Koetter, and his QB are excited about his progress. “Yeah, Vernon [Hargreaves] and [Brent] Grimes. Grimes had two nice plays getting the ball out there in that last period. Vernon had one, Javien Elliot had one. So hey, turnovers is the name of the game. They’re doing a good job.”
According to Winston, he had some words of encouragement for his former collegiate rival and now professional teammate; “I told him before we started I said, ‘Vernon, you’ve had one year in this thing, man – be aggressive. Be Vernon Hargreaves.’ He was just like, ‘Yeah man, I’m ready.’ So he’s a competitor. He is learning from one of the best DBs in the game across from him, Brent Grimes. It’s great that they get to watch film together. He gets to see how aggressive Brent is and his techniques and he takes that into his game.”
With guys like Hargreaves III and Grimes, plus Elliot and 3rd-year Bowling Green grad Jude Adjei-Barimah, it looks like the corners, as well as linebackers (led by Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander) are set to some serious damage. But will the linebacker and secondary jobs be made easier or harder this season? That all depends on the boys up from in the trenches. Thus far in camp, Gerald McCoy has shown he’s back and ready to smash his 7-sack performance last season. Defensive Ends Robert Ayers Jr. and Noah Spence are going to be asked to become forces on the edge, or else McCoy and crew on the interior will be left to carry all the weight.
While Ayers Jr. looks good thus far, either the offseason additions at the tackle position are better-than-advertised, or Noah Spence could be in for a bit of a slump. Spence finished sixth-best among rookies last season with 5.5 sacks, but as mentioned with this division, he will need to perform whatever exorcism is needed to prevent the dreaded sophomore slump. Best news about all of this? Camp just started. So, patience. There’s more good news if you’re looking for the defense to take it’s proper place in the pecking order again.
“Probably defense got the better of it today. But that’s good, right? It’s good, we’re going to have a good defensive team,” said Koetter, but followed that with a cautionary tale. “Yeah, I think the defense is winning right now. But, you know September 10th we’re not playing each other. We’re playing the Dolphins.”