There will be a tendency among Bucs followers to say that the catalyst behind Tampa Bay’s 26-23 overtime victory over the Browns on Sunday was the decision early last week to fire Mike Smith and make Mark Duffner defensive coordinator.
And perhaps there should be.
Despite their failure to defend short fields, the Bucs turned in what was easily their best defensive effort of the season Sunday, and they did so because they did something they seemingly refused to do under Smith: They simplified the defense.
Instead of running a ridiculously complex scheme that only works if the right pre- and post-snap reads are made and communicated properly and precisely across the defense, the Bucs dummied things down significantly for this game.
Longtime Bucs fans no doubt recognized that what the Bucs were doing most of the day on Sunday was playing a lot of old-fashioned cover 2, a zone scheme that greatly simplifies duties, especially for those struggling rookies patrolling the secondary.
Now, it helped that the Bucs were playing the Browns, and it helped even more that for at least half the game the Browns played some modified version a West Coast scheme that asked little of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in terms of throwing the ball downfield.
But give the Bucs credit for adjusting and for executing. Without Gerald McCoy and Vinny Curry and despite losing Kwon Alexander to a knee injury midway through, the Bucs allowed a season-low 305 yards, recorded a season-high five sacks and limited Cleveland to three third down conversions.
“This game was all about the defense,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said afterward. “Our defensive players really brought their pride and their passion today.”
This was a day when most everything they did defensive worked in the Bucs favor.
For example, it was a day in which Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib (twice) and even Will Gholston all got home on blitzes to account for four of the Bucs five sacks.
It was also a day in which Nassib not only dropped into coverage, but broke up a pass down the sideline against a running back.
It was a day in which Lavonte David forced a Baker Mayfield fumble that rolled out of bounds on fourth down inside the red zone.
And it was a day when the Bucs held on their ground on a fourth-and-1 at their own goal line to preserve a one-score lead late in the fourth quarter.
Sure, the Browns eventually tied the game anyway, but that was after the Bucs went three-and-out and had to punt from inside their own end zone, creating yet another short-field situation for the Browns.
The Browns had three of those Sunday, starting drives at the Bucs 19-, 26- and 16-yard lines. They scored touchdowns on all three, so if you want to nit-pick, you can nit-pick that. After all, defenses will tell you they should at least hold their opponent to a field goal in those situations.
That the Bucs failed suggests there’s still work to be done here and that there is. The Bucs effort and performance Sunday does not suggest they have suddenly crossed the threshold and become a solid defense. They’re anything but. But this was a big step forward. It’s just too bad that it took this long to make that step. After all, it was a simple step that could and should have been made weeks ago.
Roy Cummings is the Bucs Insider for Pewterpirates.com