ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season is getting away from them quickly, with no issue more glaring right now than their defense. Sure, the offense has struggled with consistency and slow starts, but defense was the backbone of their five-game win streak last season, and it's not coming through for them right now.
Here's why that's happening:
A complete 180 on third down
The Bucs have gone from allowing a league-best 34.4 percent third-down conversion percentage last season to a league-worst 49.4 percent. It's making it harder and harder for them to stop opponents in the red zone, too. Opponents have a 56 percent red zone efficiency this season, slightly better than the 58 percent they gave up through 16 games last season. But during the Bucs' final eight games last season, that number was 47.6 percent -- 10th best in the league.
Opposing quarterbacks are completing 73 percent of their passes on third down, fourth most in the league. That's actually a worse stat than the one many cited as a reason for Lovie Smith's firing. Last season, the Bucs gave up 53.3 percent, which was second best in the league. In terms of down and distance, the Bucs are giving up a lot of third-and-longs. They gave up 4-of-9 against the Bills, including and third-and-9 and a third-and-10 on the game-winning drive. Their 31.6 percent third-and-long conversion percentage is seventh in the league.
Lack of takeaways
Last season, the Bucs forced 29 turnovers, third in the league and averaging out to almost two per game. They have nine through the first six games this season, which comes out to 1.5 per game and is 15th in the league. They also scored 81 points off of turnovers last season, which comes out to about 5.0 points per game. This season, they average 4.5.
Lack of pass rush
The Bucs are struggling to put pressure on the quarterback. Their rate of 3.2 percent on sacks per pass attempt is dead-last in the league. Last season, they were at 6.9 percent, ninth in the league. Not having a healthy true speed-rusher this season has really hurt them. Noah Spence has been dealing with a shoulder injury and Jacquies Smith was released following his recovery from a torn ACL.
There have been instances when pressure has come through, like Clinton McDonald on third down against the Cardinals last week, which limited the Cardinals to a field goal. Robert Ayers was also able to get a sack for a 7-yard loss against the Bills in the second quarter, but they still managed to score, thanks to three third-down conversions.
The Bucs haven't been drawing up more blitzes to manufacture pressure. In fact, their average of blitzing 9.7 defensive plays per game is identical to last season. With both Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander back from injury, this is something they could implement. We've seen it before with both of them used on double A-gap blitzes. It's also something T.J. Ward had a lot of success with in Denver.
Searching for solutions
The Bucs coaching staff tried some new things this week, including moving second-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III to nickelback and shifting Robert McClain to the outside. Hargreaves played much closer to the line of scrimmage and was much more aggressive, something they've been calling for.
He only played 36 snaps (53 percent) but he didn't allow a single catch on four targets, according to Pro Football Focus, and he had a pass breakup on the Bills' opening drive on a slant pass intended for Zay Jones.
"For this week, we wanted to just change Vernon's role a little bit, to give him a little bit of a change. He wasn't playing as well as we know he can on the outside ..." head coach Dirk Koetter said. "As far as going forward, we'll have to see how the injury situation shakes out [with McClain]."
McClain is in the concussion protocol.
Also, on his radio show on 620 WDAE Friday, Koetter said the Bucs are contemplating showing more 3-4 in an effort to generate some pressure.
"People think that just by changing the formation of your defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, that that equates to more pressure, which it does not," Koetter said. "But blitzing more linebackers, that definitely could equate to more pressure. A 3-4 alignment, when we can get everybody healthy, that is something that we are considering."
David and Alexander have returned to action, which means that there is more depth at linebacker now. Plus rookie strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith played very well in Alexander's middle linebacker spot, so they are trying to find ways to keep all three on the field, even in nickel passing situations.