TAMPA, Fla. -- The NFL's attention will be on quarterback Tom Brady this fall to see if he can propel the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Super Bowl contention, but the defense's performance under second-year defensive coordinator Todd Bowles might play an even more vital role in how far the Bucs go in 2020.
The Patriots had the league's highest winning percentage under Brady from 2001 to '19 (.763), but they also had the league's No. 1 defense in that span, giving up 5,607 points in 304 games (18.44-point average). In the past five years, the Patriots gave up an average of just over 17 points per game.
Meanwhile, aside from stopping the run, the Bucs' defense has struggled for most of the last decade.
They believe they're on the rise, though, with budding young talent such as inside linebacker Devin White, cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards -- all entering their second seasons. White, Dean and Murphy-Bunting were each thrust into starting roles last year.
Then there's cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead -- both in their third seasons -- who had the most coverage snaps among players on the team last year. Davis led the NFL with 18 pass breakups.
Former starting free safety Justin Evans, who is recovering from foot and Achilles injuries over the past two years, and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., who was selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, make the Bucs' secondary an intriguing young bunch.
"Physically, they've grown. Mentally, they're still puppies," Bowles said of the group. "They played what we called last year and they played it well; they understand what we're doing on defense. But this year, they have to graduate mentally to understand what the offenses are trying to do to them to get a better grasp of the game that way."
Losing to the Seattle Seahawks 40-34 in overtime last year -- a game in which Dean surrendered three touchdown passes and 155 receiving yards -- was a catalyst. Dean and Murphy-Bunting started coming to Bowles' office at 6 a.m. to go over film in Bowles' office.
"Our defense is not going to be taken lightly," Murphy-Bunting said. "We're not going to act like we're going to allow our offense to carry us, because at the end of the day we have to hold our own."
The Bucs' secondary surrendered 28 points a game last year -- which ranked 29th in the league -- but that number dropped to 22.66 in the final six weeks of the season, 21st in the league. Opponents also went from completing 65.3% of their passes in Weeks 1-11 to completing 55.4% of passes in Weeks 12-17.
"We've gotta get better from a disguise [coverage] standpoint of understanding the details of the defense. I think we can take leaps and bounds in that aspect," Bowles said.
The Bucs surrendered 58.2 yards per game last year when in disguised coverage -- fifth worst in the league, according to TruMedia. Opponents had a 117.6 passing rating against them when it disguised coverage -- third worst in the league. And, the Bucs gave up eight touchdowns in disguised coverage last year -- second most in the league.
"Playing against a guy that's gonna come after you every day can only sharpen you," Bowles said of Brady, against whom he went 1-8 when he was head coach of the New York Jets and interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Brady can certainly help in that department. His 8.50 touchdown-to-interception ratio against disguised coverages is the league's best since 2016 (by comparison, former starting quarterback Jameis Winston's was 1.23), and Brady's 69.1% completion percentage against disguised coverages is fourth best in that span. (Winston completed 65%.)
The group needs to generate more turnovers, too, although the Bucs progressed in that area. In Weeks 1-11 last year, the Bucs had 15 turnovers, which tied for 10th in the NFL, but only six of those were interceptions, 22nd in the league. In Weeks 12-17 last year, their 13 takeaways were tied with the Seahawks for second most in the NFL.
"What we need to make our secondary known for is creating turnovers and getting interceptions," said Murphy-Bunting, who made an interception at the goal line against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13. He also sealed the Bucs' win over the Detroit Lions with a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 15. Dean made a fourth-quarter interception off of the Cardinals' Kyler Murray in Week 10 that set up a winning drive.
"We had a lot of plays where we were in position to make a play and we didn't, or we broke the pass up," Murphy-Bunting said. "And obviously, those things are always good, but at the end of the day, we want to be great."