Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has a lot of work to do this offseason. If he wants to get Tampa Bay back to the postseason for the first time in over ten years, he needs to make defense his top priority. Just look at the teams left standing in this year’s playoffs.
The saying is an old one, but it still rings true. Defense wins championships. The Buccaneers know that. The franchise was at its best when it fielded dominant defenses. With Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and John Lynch leading the way, Tampa Bay was a perennial contender. Those days are long gone. If the Bucs want to get back to their winning ways, Jason Licht needs to rebuild the defense. If he needs any confirmation on that, all he needs to do is look at the four teams still playing next weekend.
Take a peek at the NFL’s rankings for total defense and you’ll find Jacksonville, Minnesota and Philadelphia in the top five. All three will play next week for the right to move on to the Super Bowl. The other team doesn’t quite fit the script for a championship defense. But it doesn’t have to, considering it has Tom Brady as its quarterback and Bill Belichick as its head coach. The Patriots were first in total offense, which more than made up for a bottom-five ranking in total defense. New England is in its own class, considering it has played for the AFC Championship seven years in a row. So for now, let’s ignore the Patriots.
The Vikings have the were number one in total defense, allowing just 275.9 yards per game and 15.8 points per game. They field two strong pass-rushers in Everson Griffen (thirteen sacks) and Danielle Hunter (seven sacks). A lockdown corner, Xavier Rhodes, anchors the secondary. Minnesota has Case Keenum under center, and while he had a very good season, he is not the typical championship quarterback. The fact is, he doesn’t have to be. He can play clean football and benefit greatly from a top-tier defense.
The Jaguars had the number two defense, giving up just 286.1 yards per game and 16.8 points per game. Jacksonville put up 55 sacks this season, led by Calais Campbell (fourteen and a half sacks), Yannick Ngakoue (twelve sacks) and Dante Fowler Jr. (eight sacks). Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are two of the better cornerbacks in the league. Blake Bortles, sometimes unfairly, gets tons of criticism for not being an effective quarterback. He is somewhat inconsistent, but again, he doesn’t have to do everything himself. His defense can get him by. A strong run game certainly helps as well, but that’s a different story…
As for Philadelphia, there’s a different circumstance. Carson Wentz was having a season worthy of MVP consideration before going down with a season-ending injury. When he went down, many thought Philadelphia had no chance to succeed with Nick Foles under center. Now, the Eagles are in the NFC Championship Game. Defensively, Philadelphia ranked fourth in the league. The Eagles allowed just 306.5 yards per game and 18.4 points per game. When it came down to the wire in the divisional round of the playoffs, Philadelphia’s defense came up with a red zone stand to beat Atlanta. With the uncertainty of Foles as the team’s leader down the stretch, the Philly defense has calmed the storm quite a bit.
All three teams mentioned had plenty of offensive success this year. But there’s not much of an argument against the fact that their defenses were a huge key in getting them to this point. Ask yourself, do Keenum, Bortles or Foles get to a conference championship game if they had the Buccaneer defense? Do they even get to the playoffs? It’s hard to argue that they would.
So, that’s where Licht can learn. He hasn’t been using his draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. He needs to start. The Bucs need pass-rushers big-time. They also need some help in the secondary, as Brent Grimes‘ future is uncertain and Vernon Hargreaves‘ consistency is still questionable. But it’s not like Licht has no talent to work with on the defense. Gerald McCoy is still all-pro material up front, while the linebackers are the unit’s biggest strength. Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith are as solid of a group as any in the league. Justin Evans is a budding star at the safety position. There’s a ton of room for Licht to work on the defense this offseason.
With there only being one more year for Licht, head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith to prove their worth, this offseason is extremely important. And while their 5-11 record doesn’t show it, the Bucs aren’t too far away from being a playoff team. The offense has a ton of talent and just needs a running back and a few upgrades along the offensive the line. The defense… The defense needs work. And if the Buccaneers are going to get back to the playoffs in 2018, it will need to figure things out defensively. Having a defense that is dead last in the league certainly won’t cut it. There’s some talent, but the Bucs need to add more.