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'Overlooked' Bucs defense full of takeaways on first day of minicamp

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have invested a lot of resources in the offense, but the defense has been stealing the show this offseason. You could see that during Tuesday's first minicamp practice, a good sign for a unit that struggled during the first half of the season but wound up finishing third in the league with 29 takeaways.

During the first team period, the Bucs lined up in the two-minute drill and defensive end Robert Ayers intercepted quarterback Jameis Winston. Ayers played softer coverage than he typically would in a two-minute drill since there's no tackling allowed in minicamp.

"In a real two-minute drill, Robert is probably trying like crazy to get a sack," head coach Dirk Koetter said. "He was in a throwing lane. I don't think Jameis saw him. It was a nice play by Robert."

During a red zone period, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander punched the ball loose twice from receivers' hands. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves picked off Winston during the final period on a pass intended for DeSean Jackson.

"They were in a pressure on that one that got intercepted," Koetter said. "Jameis would have taken a pretty good hit on that and might have been sacked. He was just trying to get it out."

Safety Chris Conte also had a key pass breakup on a ball intended for tight end O.J. Howard and almost had a pick.

"I think the best thing our defense has done is that they've had a lot of guys nicked up, they'd had a lot of guys that were missing and they probably got the best of the offense through 11 OTA practices," Koetter said. "I'd say that the defense has won more than they've lost."

Two of the Bucs' top pass-rushers, Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith, have been recovering from shoulder and ACL surgery. Safeties J.J. Wilcox, who was signed this offseason as a free agent, and Justin Evans, a second-round draft pick, have also missed all of OTAs because of injuries.

The absence of Wilcox and Evans, who could both challenge for starting roles, impacts their ability to assimilate in the Bucs defense. That's especially true for Evans, whom the coaching staff has been calling on to communicate more out on the field.

The big plays are still happening though, which is a positive sign.

"The defense has improved their depth," Koetter said. "The main players in that defense -- Kwon and Lavonte, Gerald in the middle, Hargreaves -- have consistently made plays every day."

All offseason, Koetter has called on Hargreaves to play more aggressive. He played too timid last year, merely making tackles after the ball was caught, rather than getting his hands on balls. He's been challenged daily lining up against Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans and speedster DeSean Jackson.

McCoy has stated publicly that he needs to do more to lead the team and to help them close out games in the fourth quarter. David is finally feeling healthy after a season marred by injuries last year, and Alexander continues to play with more confidence after a year in Mike Smith's system.

They've got their work cut out for them if they want to better their 9-7 record from 2016 though. They face the reigning league MVP, Matt Ryan, twice a year. They'll also see Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in Week 5. They then travel to Green Bay in December to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. If the defense wants to shut those offenses down, they can't just be competitive in practice -- they have to dominate.

The offense has to win some too.

"This time of year, you're cheering for both sides," Koetter said. "You want both sides to do well. We need the work. Obviously I want the offense to do well, but our defense is overlooked a lot. I'm happy for those guys when they get the ball out. .... That's something that they're working on every day."