TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have given up 101 points through three games, more than any other team in the NFL. Offensive turnovers are a factor in 37 of those points, but the Bucs' defense has still given up way too many explosive plays and defensive coordinator Mike Smith said the blame falls squarely on his shoulders.
"I know everybody is frustrated in terms of what we have put out there in the first three games, nobody more than me," said Smith, who took over as defensive coordinator this year. "It’s not any one player’s fault; it’s not any one coach’s fault. Ultimately it’s my responsibility to make sure that our guys understand what we’re trying to get accomplished. And we have not played the type of football that we need to play in the first three football games."
It's not so much an entire game's worth of bad defense. It's a handful of explosive plays every game that has doomed them. Against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, the Bucs defense surrendered 207 yards in 10 plays, and gave up 30 points to an offense that had yet to score an offensive touchdown through the first two weeks of the season. Against the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, the Bucs' defense gave up 10 plays that accounted for 264 yards. In 30 plays over the last three games, the defense surrendered a total of 721 yards.
“The sky is not falling," Smith said. "I think we’re a lot closer than we are away from it -- I can assure you that. And really there’s one guy to me that’s got to do a better job and that’s Mike Smith."
Smith wouldn't point the finger at any individual player or position group. "We’re having problems with Coach Mike Smith and he’s the guy that’s responsible for it.”
The Bucs defense is giving up, on average, 370 yards per game, which is 14th in the league. They're giving up a 37.5 percent first-down conversion rate on third-down plays, which is tied for 12th with the Dallas Cowboys and a sizeable improvement from the 46 percent last year. And the 70-percent opponent completion percentage that was the most damning stat of them all last year? That's down to 59.6 percent.
It's a multilayered problem and improving the team's pass rush, an area Smith calls "dead average," would have a trickle-down effect. "We’re not rushing the quarterback near at the level that we need to. It doesn’t matter who’s out there, it doesn’t matter how many guys are not there, we’ve got to go out and put pressure on the quarterback," Smith said.
Because of an ankle injury, the group has been without defensive end Robert Ayers, who had 9½ sacks last season with the New York Giants. The team also lost Jacquies Smith for the season with a torn ACL.
The Bucs have five sacks through three games, currently tied for 18th in the league. Two of those sacks have come from linebackers.
"It's not going to be just one guy; it’s going to an effort by the entire line and it’s going to be what the secondary is doing as well," Smith said. If the secondary is doing its job downfield, quarterbacks can hold on to the ball longer, creating coverage sacks.
Last week against the Rams, there were a lot of seven-man protections, which put the Bucs at a disadvantage when they rushed with four. Three players were double-teamed, creating an opportunity for just one player to have a one-on-one matchup. The Bucs have to get in situations when they are one-on-one or with free runners.
"For us to do that, we’ve got to get them in third-and-longer -- what we call 'third-and-our-down,'" Smith said. The ideal situation for that would be third-and-7 or longer.
Smith said that ultimately, the team will be judged by how it performs over the course of 16 games rather than three weeks. "We’re playing a very good football team this week that’s going to challenge us in a lot of ways, but I’m very anxious to watch the way that these guys on the defensive side of the football are going to respond to what’s happened over the last two weeks.”