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Bucs say simplifying defense helped key win under Mark Duffner

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Things looking up for Bucs (1:04)

The Bucs' 26-23 win Sunday might have come against the Cleveland Browns, but some of the changes made under new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner indicate that things could be headed in the right direction. (1:04)

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was one win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it provided a glimmer of hope that promoting linebackers coach Mark Duffner to defensive coordinator might have been the right call.

Could the Bucs' ailing defense be headed in the right direction following coach Dirk Koetter's decision to move on from former coordinator Mike Smith?

The Bucs defeated the Cleveland Browns 26-23 in overtime, snapping a three-game losing streak to improve to 3-3.

How they won might not have been pretty: a stout first half with a commanding 16-2 lead, followed by a sloppy second half in which the Browns tied it at 23 with 2:28 to go in the fourth quarter. But considering that the Bucs became razor-thin at linebacker, losing both Kwon Alexander and Jack Cichy during the game to knee injuries, they'll take it.

"Well, I'm not going to compare it to the first five games because that's an impossible question, but compared to last week, we did way better on third down," Koetter said. "We got off the field on third down, and we got five sacks. Cleveland, in the second half, attacked us a little bit more with the run. With Kwon out of there, that probably makes sense, and they hurt us a little bit more with the run.

"I just thought our defensive players really brought their passion and their pride today. I thought their energy on the sideline and the way they were talking to each other was really good as well."

The Bucs held the Browns to 76 yards of offense in the first half -- the fewest given up since their 14-5 win against the Seattle Seahawks in 2016. Tampa Bay also allowed Cleveland to convert just 21 percent of its third downs.

"[Duffner] just kept everything simple, not having guys think a lot. He called the calls that we practiced on, that we executed, and everyone was able to settle down and make plays," linebacker Lavonte David said. "The main thing was sticking to coverages that we always play. Going into the game -- we're going to play this, this and this -- we're going to master those coverages. That's what we did."

Rookie nickelback M.J. Stewart added: "It allowed us to play faster. And we just brought the energy, the energy -- it goes a long way. Believe me, it does. ... In anything you do, if you simplify, it allows you to play faster."

In addition to their five sacks, the Bucs were disruptive in the backfield, with eight tackles for loss. They made a critical goal-line stand with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, stopping Baker Mayfield a half-yard shy of the end zone on fourth-and-1. Then, after surrendering a 16-yard touchdown to a wide-open Jarvis Landry that tied the game at 23 -- the one true breakdown in the game -- the Bucs showed resilience by forcing two three-and-outs in overtime.

"That's what it's all about: keep giving them chances, keep giving them chances," David said. "We can't fold as a defense. In situations like that, that's when you need your defense to step up, and we were able to do that, all of us collectively."

There were new wrinkles, including the zone blitz. Nassib dropped into coverage and broke up a pass intended for running back Nick Chubb. Jason Pierre-Paul played that role, too. Communication seemed improved. Alexander, who spent the past two weeks looking lost and out of position, appeared much better prepared. Stewart looked more sure of himself, even when charged with the task of defending Landry, as did fellow rookie Carlton Davis.

"He [Duffner] told us to play with passion and energy, and it really transferred over to the game," Davis said. "We kept it simple, but at the end of the day, it's about execution and effort and energy. That was our base. ... It's on us to go out there and make plays [with the game] on the line."

Expectations must be tempered. This win was against the Browns, who hadn't won a road game since 2015. Cleveland had given up a league-high 26 sacks entering Sunday and was averaging 21 points per game. This wasn't the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints, who can easily rack up more than 30 points in a game.

In-season coordinator changes don't happen very often, but when they do, they lead to mixed results. In 2017, the Oakland Raiders fired Ken Norton Jr. and replaced him with John Pagano after 10 games. The Raiders went 2-4 in the remaining six games, but their defensive efficiency rating improved from 32nd to 11th.

In 2008, the 3-5 San Diego Chargers fired Ted Cottrell and replaced him with Ron Rivera after eight games. They went from giving up 24.9 points per game to 18.5 and finished the second half of the season with a 5-3 record.

When Jim Haslett was promoted to head coach of the then-St. Louis Rams in 2008 and Rick Venturi took over as defensive coordinator, they went from giving up 36.8 points per game to 26.5.

In some cases, a defensive coordinator change can result in more regression. In 2015, New Orleans fired Rob Ryan after 10 games and replaced him with Dennis Allen. The Saints' defense still finished last in the league in defensive efficiency. In 2012, Philadelphia fired Juan Castillo after six games and replaced him with Todd Bowles. The Eagles went from fifth in defensive efficiency to 32nd in the league and went 1-9 in their final 10 games.

"I think that this will be a turnaround for us," Stewart said. "Because 2-3 isn't really acceptable, and 2-4 definitely isn't acceptable. Sometimes you win some, you lose some, but I'm just glad we got the 'W' today."