What Changed For The Buccaneers Defense?

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith looks on prior to the game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith looks on prior to the game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Since their early season struggles the Buccaneers defense has come full circle and now looks to be a unit worth getting cautiously excited about. On Thursday, Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith gave his take on what flipped the switch.

It’s impossible to overstate just how far the Buccaneers defense has come since just five weeks ago. In the early to mid goings of the season the defense looked much the same that it did last season and was a unit that you desperately wanted to pit fantasy players against.

Struggles were rampant at every level of the defense. Linemen were injured or getting their sea-legs, linebackers were absent from play-making, and defensive backs looked over-matched and undermanned. Back to back games against Oakland and Atlanta seemed to be rock bottom as Derek Carr and Matt Ryan combined to throw 8 touchdowns and 900 yards.

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Then, suddenly, something clicked. A week after being dismantled by the Falcons, the Buccaneer defense overwhelmed Jay Cutler and the Bears en route to a 36-10 blowout victory. Quickly dismissing any notion of a fluke, the defense traveled next to Kansas City and largely shut down the Chiefs, before coming home and similarly shutting down the Seahawks. The three week stretch was as impressive as it was surprising, and left most observers with one question:

What the heck happened?

Health is the most obvious answer, and that’s certainly where it began. For Mike Smith’s defense to function properly he of course needed his most talented players – namely Robert Ayers and Gerald McCoy – to be healthy and controlling the trenches. But health is just one component. Even when healthy early on in the season the defense had it’s fair share of struggles.

According to Mike Smith, the leading answer is improved communication.

"“I think that these guys have done a very good job over the last three weeks in improving their communication. And when we communicate and we have an idea that we’re all on the same page, then we have an opportunity to be successful. They’ve done a very good job. That’s one of the things that we’ve tried to focus on, is being communicative to one another, not only on the field, but in the meeting rooms. We’ve changed some things up, in terms of how we’ve been doing things and to this point, it’s been a good mix.”"

From the outside looking in, Smith’s words seem to be spot on. Buccaneer defenders frequently looked out of position and befuddled pre-snap and had multiple coverage breakdowns. Due to miscommunications between corner back and safety, offenses like Atlanta and Los Angeles were able to net agonizing forty-plus yard lay-ups. Defensive backs were rarely in the right spot at the right time and with no pressure on the quarterback most of their miscues in coverage were easy to attack and expose.

Issues with communication and chemistry are to be expected with a new defensive coordinator coming to town, and it’s made even more difficult given how often the Bucs change defensive play-callers. To see Buccaneer defenders now comfortably on the same page as their play-caller and teammates and visibly adjusting on the field is an encouraging sign for things going forward.

Next: Buccaneers at Chargers: Five Game Changing Players

The defensive renaissance in Tampa faces a stiff challenge this week with future hall-of-famer Philip Rivers. The savvy Rivers will surely test just how cohesive a unit this defense has become and will look to exploit any unresolved issues.