TAMPA, Fla. -- At this time last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the hottest defenses in the NFL. Now, they have one of the worst.
Last year around this time, the Bucs were limiting two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks -- Drew Brees (Week 14) and Russell Wilson -- to zero touchdowns, sacking them a combined seven times and picking them off five times.
In their final eight games last year, when they went 6-2, the defense had 21 sacks and 13 interceptions. In the past eight games they played in, they have 13 sacks -- and that includes the six they had on New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown in Week 10 -- and four interceptions.
This year, they've allowed 95 explosive plays (rushing plays of 12 or more yards and pass plays of 16 or more) on defense, third most in the league. That averages out to about 7.92 per game. Interestingly, that's slightly better than their overall mark of 8.56 per game last year, which was second-most in the league. Even in their final eight games, they still gave up 59 explosive plays (10 of which came against the Dallas Cowboys).
As the numbers show, they're definitely not getting pressure on the quarterback, and they're not getting enough takeaways to replicate that magic.
They're also not getting off the field on third down. Last year, they surrendered just 34.4 percent of third downs, the best in the NFL. This year: 48.5 percent, the worst in the league.
Their run fits have been bad this year, and there have been a ton of missed tackles, allowing running backs 585 rushing yards after contact, tied for 10th-most in the league.
The pressure is coming from the interior but not consistently off the edge. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has five sacks, but he's also fighting off double teams. Four defensive ends -- Robert Ayers, Will Clarke, Darryl Tapp and Noah Spence -- have accounted for only seven sacks. Clarke was recently cut, and Spence was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
The defensive backfield has also been shuffled around quite a bit. On paper, it looked like these were upgrades, particularly at safety, with rookie Justin Evans and three-time Pro Bowler T.J. Ward joining the roster. But it's meant fewer opportunities for key contributors from last year, like Keith Tandy.
In the final five weeks of the season last year, Tandy had four interceptions, tied for most in the NFL not just among safeties but all defensive backs. His 34 solo tackles in that span were also the most among defensive backs. But he's averaging just 14.2 defensive snaps per game, the fewest of any Bucs safety. To be fair, he didn't have that great of a training camp and wasn't moving as well as he did last year.
Chris Conte had two interceptions in a two-week span before suffering a chest injury, which led to Tandy taking over for him. He's part of a three-safety rotation that's been whittled down to two the past two weeks because of a concussion to Ward. Conte is still averaging more than 42 snaps a game, just behind rookie Evans, who's played the most snaps of any member of the Bucs' secondary.
Brent Grimes is still playing at a high level, but opposite him is an experienced Ryan Smith. Vernon Hargreaves III was inexperienced in that role last year and was picked on quite a bit, and the team was banking on him having more experience this year. Instead, Smith, who didn't play a single snap on defense last year as a rookie, is having those same growing pains all over again.
Hargreaves has missed the past three games with a hamstring injury, but prior to the injury, he was lining up at nickel, and Robert McClain -- one of the most versatile corners they have -- was on the outside. McClain has been relegated inside because Smith doesn't play nickel.