Lost amid all the hub-bub over Bounty-gate and the Junior Seau tragedy has been a plethora of Buccaneers news. Ronde Barber is moving to safety, Da’Quan Bowers is potentially lost for the season and with the exception of some rookies and Eric Wright, this is basically the same unit that finished the season ranked dead last in the NFL in scoring.
Last year was not necessarily the best indication of what the team was capable of defensively, but for as many excuses as you can make for the 2011 Bucs, the facts remain they were just lousy on that side of the ball last year.
The front seven was abysmal, the secondary was regularly victimized and the entire identity of the team was thrown into disarray when the defense couldn’t get off the field and the offense couldn’t start fast enough.
With the bulk of the off-season transactions now in the book, and with a clearer idea of what Greg Schiano is planning for next year, let’s take stock of the Bucs defense and try to take an objective look at just where this unit stands as it heads into the OTA period of the NFL year.
Have the Bucs done enough to improve the defense?
Here’s the rub, despite painting things as bleak, they really aren’t in Tampa.The Bucs could actually have a pretty solid defensive unit in 2012, even without a major overhaul this off-season.
It all just hangs on the health of one man.
Gerald McCoy is the most crucial element on the Buccaneers defense, bar none. Think I’m kidding? With a healthy McCoy last season the same Bucs team that finished a hapless 4-12 and ranked dead last in defense was at one point 4-2 with impressive victories over Atlanta and New Orleans to speak of.
Do you remember that team? It seems like two seasons ago now, but there was a point in 2011 where the Bucs looked like a legitimate NFC contender. There was a game where Tampa smashed Atlanta in its mouth and held Michael Turner to 20 yards on the ground. There was confidence and strength in that defense back then.
Then Gerald McCoy got hurt and the effects were obvious.
Talk about a trickle-down impact, every level of the defense got worse when McCoy went out last year. Mason Foster and the linebackers became a lot less effective when they were spending the start of most plays fighting off blockers at the second level. We talked about the importance of the front four in a 4-3 during the draft, McCoy is a great illustration of that.
Mason Foster looked like two different players last season, he was exciting with a great nose for the ball early on. But then I’ve heard some fans go as far as to say he disappeared in the second half. He didn’t disappear, he just got covered up because none of the guys up front could occupy blockers at the point and keep them from bothering the backers.
When McCoy is out there, the entire line is better. Offenses have to focus on the middle of the Bucs line, giving your edge rushers better chances at one-on-ones and keeping additional guys off your linebackers and safeties. The gap integrity improves with McCoy in the middle, helping the run defense play more effectively and the coverage improves because the pressure is better when you have a guy who can collapse the pocket from the middle.
Essentially, Gerald McCoy catches a bad rep because he hasn’t been as flashy as Ndamukong Suh, but in the context of his role on his respective defense he may be even more essential to his team than Suh is.
When Suh is gone the Lions (as they have shown) can still win and play decent defense. The Bucs defense went from a middle of the pack defense to cellar-dwellars without McCoy last season. It was night and day.
For Tampa to succeed this season, McCoy has to stay healthy all year. Aside from being the highest paid guy on the roster, he may also be the most indispensable.
Greg Schiano can fix the locker-room culture, he can add leaders and talk all he wants about the Buccaneer way. What he can’t do is produce an elite NFL defensive tackle from thin air.
In Tampa, as Gerald McCoy goes, so too does the Bucs defense.