Many would argue that it was that Week 4 game in 2018 that set the wheels in motion to get the Bucs to where they are today, with Bruce Arians becoming their coach the next season, Todd Bowles becoming their defensive coordinator and Tom Brady ultimately becoming their quarterback two years later.
“That was a really terrible game,” tight end Cam Brate said. “Yeah, it was probably one of the worst losses I’ve had in my tenure here. I just remember how on-point [Bears quarterback Mitchell] Trubisky was in that game. That was like my takeaway from that game. He was incredible.”
Trubisky threw six touchdown passes and it was “wheel route city” all game long against the Bucs’ quarters coverage on defense, which allowed 354 yards and the most points given up by a Bucs’ defense since 2014.
Offensively, the Bucs mustered just three first downs and converted one third down under Fitzpatrick.
“It wasn’t the best game for our defense. Offensively, we couldn’t really get anything going. I think it was kind of, we were in that Fitz-or-Jameis back-and-forth, who was gonna be the quarterback?’” Brate said.
Team captain Lavonte David, regarded as the heart and soul of the team, and several others sat with their heads down in the visiting locker room, staring at the ground in disbelief.
Koetter proclaimed, “Based on that game today, we couldn't make enough changes. We should fire every person that was on that field today -- starting with me. That was horrific.”
They held on to Smith for one more game -- a 34-29 loss at the Atlanta Falcons following the bye week. Koetter would join him at the end of the season, following their second 5-11 season.
“I believe only three guys are still here. I think it was Carlton [Davis III’s] rookie year, [Jordan] Whitehead’s rookie year, me and Will [Gholston]. It’s changed a lot,” David said. “I know we still kind of have that taste in our mouth. That was one of those games where you just want to forget about [it] but you can’t forget.”
General manager Jason Licht lured Arians out of retirement. With Arians, came a complete defensive overhaul under Bowles. They went from a soft 4-3 defense playing primarily zone coverage to a completely different philosophy on defense -- a one-gap, 3-4, blitz-heavy attack utilizing more man coverage.
They parted ways with longtime 3-technique Gerald McCoy and replaced him with Ndamukong Suh. David was moved from a weakside linebacker to inside, and they have paired him with 2019 fifth-overall draft pick and budding star Devin White, who is frequently used in Bowles’ double- and triple A-gap blitzes while David is now not only used in coverage and stopping the run, but coming off the edge at the line of scrimmage.
“I think it’s still the style of defense you want to play -- a lot of it is the players you have,” Arians said. “I think this group of players we have right now could play in multiple different styles of defense. So I think it’s your preference and what style of defense you want to play, and matching your players and what players you have matching your defense to.”
“Lavonte can play in any defense you draw up. He’s a great football player,” Arians said. “It’s not really a scheme fit -- he fits everything -- and I think when you’re drafting and getting free agents, it’s more than getting football players. Find out what they can do."
Their ideal cornerback also went from Brent Grimes to others like Davis -- long, lanky and physical in Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. No longer are cornerbacks giving seven yards of cushion off the line of scrimmage. They’re in receivers’ faces and disrupting the timing of their routes, rather than consistently playing off.
Many expressed concern that going from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense would be far too difficult of a transition. But it’s paid off.
They’re giving up an average of 23.0 points per game on defense. Their 312 yards given up per game ranks fourth-best in the league, compared to the five games that season when Smith’s defense was giving up 439.8 yards per game. Smith’s defense also had surrendered 400 yards total in 20 out of 37 games. Bowles’ defense has done it four times in 16 games.
They’re now pressuring opposing QBs on 34.4% of dropbacks -- third-best in the league, behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers (42.5%) and Kansas City Chiefs (35.3%). And their 14.0 sacks are also third in the league. They also have blitzed on 40.1% of dropbacks, second only to the Steelers.
They had nine total interceptions in 16 games in 2018 and have five already in just four games in 2020, with their corners growing, and with the outstanding play of rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
“I think Jason [Licht] has done a great job of identifying bright guys,” Arians said. “Not just good athletes, but bright guys and football players that understand the game and love the game. We picked up [outside linebacker] Shaq Barrett and Suh -- guys that love the game and they are talented. And then the young secondary guys came in. They took their lumps -- we knew they were gonna take their lumps too early last year, but we knew they were gonna grow into football players."
The final piece, of course, was Brady, whom the Bucs signed as a free agent this spring. The biggest thing he’s brought has been a winning edge, bringing the Bucs back from a 17-point deficit against the Los Angeles Chargers last week, a trait that would have been helped in that demoralizing defeat in Chicago two years ago. In 42 consecutive games of being down that many points, the Bucs could not rally. They didn’t stand much of a chance to do it two years ago, either.
They’re built for it now, though.
“Obviously a ton has changed -- coaches, players -- we’ve got a whole new team,” Brate said. “Hopefully we can not have a repeat performance.”