The old adage “defense wins championships” seemed a thing of the past until last February’s Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks reminded the sports world what a dominant defense can achieve in the NFL. This past offseason proved the Buccaneers were paying attention. After hiring former Buccaneers’ assistant coach and Chicago Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith, no one can doubt the Bucs are primed for a breakout season on the defensive side of the ball.
Lovie’s defense in Chicago, which ran the Tampa 2 scheme he learned from Tony Dungy and the Bucs, was regarded as one of the NFL’s elite during his tenure. Like Lovie’s Bears, Dungy’s Bucs boasted one of the best defenses in NFL history during the early 2000’s, some of which can be credited to Lovie’s job as linebackers coach early in that era.
The similarities between that Bucs’ defense and today’s are easy to see. The 2014 Buccaneers defense is led by two young players that molded their game after Buccaneer Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp. Lovie Smith had an integral role in developing Brooks from the undersized linebacker that he was into the Hall of Famer that he is today. Tampa has a similar talent in Lavonte David, another weak-side linebacker that was named an AP First Team All-Pro after the 2013 season, only his second season in the NFL. His combination of speed and proper form tackling is unrivaled at the linebacker position, and he’s well ahead of his age in terms of awareness and attention to detail. Lovie himself has compared David to Brooks, which is no small praise from someone that coached both players at a young age:
“I think in general just by position, our best player is going at the Will linebacker position,” Smith said. “There’s a reason why Derrick is going into the Hall. That has to be our special player and that’s the case with Lavonte David.”
Even linebackers of David’s caliber can’t make plays without a force up front, and that force goes by the name of Gerald McCoy. The third overall pick of the 2010 Draft and 2014 First Team All-Pro, McCoy has come leaps and bounds from his first two injury plagued seasons. Recent good health has allowed McCoy to emerge as a top five defensive tackle and arguably the best three-technique tackle in the game. He is a constant threat to collapse the pocket, drawing double and even triple-teams on a consistent basis. The Bucs haven’t had a presence as large as McCoy’s since Sapp was still in red and pewter.
The Buccaneers’ offense lacks the elite talent of the defense, although the pieces are in place to succeed. Journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, after excelling last year in Chicago after Jay Cutler’s injury, comes to Tampa with little competition and limited expectations.
With the return of healthy running back Doug Martin, a tandem of massive receivers in pro-bowler Vincent Jackson (6’5”) and rookie Mike Evans (6’5”), and a revamped offensive line led by new acquisitions Anthony Collins (LT) and Logan Mankins (LG), McCown has all the help he can ask for. Nobody’s asking McCown to be Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. Instead, McCown will be asked to manage the offense, limit turnovers, and take advantage of good field position.
Make no mistake, the 2014 Buccaneers will be a defensive minded football team with a formidable offense. Like last year’s Seahawks proved, that recipe can result in a championship even in modern day football.
The Buccaneers open their season this Sunday by hosting the Carolina Panthers, a division rival coming off a playoff berth in 2013. The Panthers are led by head coach Ron Rivera, who was Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator while in Chicago. The Panthers are built similarly to Tampa, led by a fierce defense and the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. Their offense, besides star quarterback Cam Newton, is less than stellar. Their running game consists of over-the-hill veterans and their receiving corps is entirely new, leaving Newton to shoulder the load. If the Bucs can generate a pass rush, Newton’s burden will prove to be too heavy.
Five New Players to Watch against Carolina:
- Quarterback Josh McCown: Can he and his receivers mesh by week 1? Was 2013 a fluke or is McCown truly a late bloomer?
- Left Guard Logan Mankins: Much was made of his departure from New England last week. Can he bolster the Bucs’ inexperienced offensive line on such short notice?
- Defensive End Michael Johnson: While McCoy was a force, he had no help from pass-rushers last season. Can new addition Michael Johnson finish what McCoy starts?
- Cornerback Alterraun Verner: Signed to replace Darrelle Revis, Verner has big shoes to fill. He will be tasked with covering rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin this Sunday.
- Wide Receiver Mike Evans: The Bucs’ first round pick, Evans is a freak athlete with sticky hands and the body of a basketball player. Can he continue the success that he and Johnny Football had at Texas A&M?
Prediction: Bucs 24, Panthers 21