Tampa Bay's young defense grows up

Bucs LB Dekoda Watson is congratulated by Gerald McCoy (93) after he sacked Falcons QB Matt Ryan. Kim Klement/US Presswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Before he even took off his uniform and headed for the shower, Gerald McCoy went through the locker room, searching for a stat sheet.

When the Tampa Bay defensive tackle finally found one, his reaction came in one word.

“Wow,’’ McCoy said.

He then tapped fellow defensive tackle Frank Okam on the shoulder and pointed to one line. Sitting in his chair and taking off his shoes Okam looked at where McCoy’s finger was and elaborated.

“Thirty rushing yards?’’ Okam said. “We held them to 30 rushing yards? Wow.’’

What Tampa Bay’s defense did in Sunday’s 16-13 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium was worth plenty of wows.

A defense that is incredibly young on the front seven shut down what many thought would be one of the league’s best offenses. The Bucs shut down a team that many considered a Super Bowl contender, but is now 1-2.

With rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster wearing the radio helmet and calling the defensive signals for the full game for the first time, a rookie (Adrian Clayborn) starting at defensive end and two second-year defensive tackles (McCoy and Brian Price) in the starting lineup, the Bucs turned in their best defensive performance since legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left after the 2008 season.

Heck, you can go back a month further than that. The Tampa Bay defense started falling apart that November when word leaked out that Kiffin was leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. The Bucs lost their final four games that season and the defense hasn’t been very good since.

The Bucs couldn’t stop much of anything in a 3-13 season in 2009 and they rode the coattails of quarterback Josh Freeman and his last-minute miracles to 10 wins last season. But things changed in a big way Sunday.

The Bucs (2-1) played defense the way they did in the early 2000s or late 1990s, when Kiffin was running the show and guys like Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch were making the big plays.

In this brand-new age, it was guys like Foster (a sack, a quarterback hurry and a tackle for a loss), Clayborn (his first sack in the NFL), Price (a sack and two tackles for a loss) and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (an interception) making the big plays.

More importantly, the Bucs didn’t give up a lot of big plays.

“They still threw for 300 yards [actually 330], but it didn’t matter,’’ Okam said. “We didn’t give up big plays and we kept them out of the end zone for the most part.’’

Atlanta’s lone touchdown didn’t come until the fourth quarter. That’s the same offense that scored 35 points last week against “The Dream Team’’ (the Philadelphia Eagles) and the same team that had beaten the Bucs five straight times, dating to 2008.

But that streak ended and Atlanta’s offense fizzled because the Bucs realized the real backbone of Atlanta’s offense.

Michael Turner is a great running back,’’ Foster said. “We knew we had to gang tackle him and we played at a high level all night. We swarmed to the ball and got him on the ground.’’

Turner, who had rushed for 100 yards in each of Atlanta’s first two games, carried 11 times for 20 yards (a 1.8-yard average). His longest run of the game was 9 yards and Atlanta’s longest run was a 12-yard scramble by quarterback Matt Ryan.

That’s pretty much the way coach Raheem Morris and his staff drew up the defensive game plan, although it certainly helped that a Tampa Bay offense that had started slowly in the first two weeks produced 13 first-half points.

“We knew it was really important to stop the running game,’’ Okam said. “If we could make them one-dimensional and knock out their run game, our rushers could get there and get pressure and help Matt Ryan make mistakes for us.’’

Ryan threw one interception, was sacked four times and was the victim of some dropped passes, particularly one by Roddy White in the fourth quarter that could have put the Falcons ahead. But the Bucs came in willing to let Ryan throw the ball a fair amount. The caveat that came with that part of the plan was to limit the big plays. The Bucs did a good job of keeping plays in front of the secondary and there weren’t many deep throws.

“They’ve got great receivers and a great quarterback and a Hall of Fame tight end [Tony Gonzalez],’’ Foster said. “We kept them in check and did what we had to do to win the game.’’

But, most of all, the Bucs stopped Turner. That’s more than a little surprising because this defense has struggled to stop the run since the final month of Kiffin’s time in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs have taken criticism from the media and their own fans for not adding a few experienced pieces to the front seven of their defense in the offseason. They didn’t seem to need any of that against the Falcons. They shut them down with youth, fresh legs and a well-executed scheme.

“Everyone was playing sound technique,’’ Okam said. “Everyone was holding their gaps and being physical at the point of attack, getting off blockers and making plays when they came to you. You make something happen just by doing your job. When you’ve got 11 guys focused on doing their job, the game plan comes to fruition and it just works out.’’

Maybe this was a game where Tampa Bay’s defense simply got lucky. The Bucs could have been in trouble if the Falcons got the ball back at the end of the game. Instead, Atlanta defensive tackle Corey Peters jumped offsides and the Bucs were able to run out the clock.

Or maybe this was a sign that Tampa Bay’s young defense has arrived and it just might keep getting better. If that’s the case, the Bucs could be a very real player in the NFC South race.

“I told the team we didn’t come into the season to beat the Atlanta Falcons,’’ Morris said. “We came into this season to win the division."

That just might be possible, if the Bucs can keep playing defense like they did Sunday.