For more than a decade, defense defined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The names of their leaders read like a Hall of Fame ballot: Brooks, Sapp, Lynch, Barber.
From 1997, its second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin, through 2008, Tampa Bay’s defense was 10 times ranked in the NFL’s top 10. Eight times, the unit finished in the top five. The Bucs’ cover two scheme allowed the fewest yards and points during that span.
But the Bucs allowed 31 points or more in three of the final four games last season - all defeats. Kiffin was done, joining linebacker Derrick Brooks as ex-Bucs. Tackle Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch had departed five years earlier.
Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, 33, leapfrogged to head coach, replacing Jon Gruden. Jim Bates, 63, became the coordinator for his fourth NFL team.
The cover two is now only part of what Tampa Bay does. The change in schemes hasn’t been one for the better. Not only are the Bucs 0-3, but they’re also last in the NFC in points, yards, rushing yards and yards per pass attempt allowed heading into Sunday’s game at Washington.
“Our young guys have to self-evaluate and find out how they can be their best selves,” said cornerback Ronde Barber, the last link to the team that won Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. “We need new Brookses, new Sapps, new Lynches - all those icons that were on this defense. These young guys gotta redefine themselves and be those guys or be at least as good or better than those guys were.”
That’s an imposing challenge for a less than overwhelming group. End Jimmy Wilkerson and tackle Ryan Sims washed out in Kansas City. End Gaines Adams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Sabby Piscitelli have yet to show why Tampa Bay drafted them in the first or second round.
Other than Barber, tackle Chris Hovan is the unit’s only proven starter. And only Adams, Piscitelli, Talib and linebacker Geno Hayes aren’t in at least their fifth seasons, so it’s not that young of a unit.
“Some of the scheme has changed, but the philosophy remains the same,” said Morris, who came to Tampa Bay as defensive quality control coach in 2002. “What has changed a lot is personnel. We got a bunch of young guys growing up together… who you really don’t know. They’ve got to come together and form what those [eventual stars] formed in ‘96 and carry it throughout the next decade. If they can do that, we’ll have a chance around here.”
That didn’t happen in September. Tampa Bay and Cleveland are the only teams that lost their first three games by double digits. The Bucs fell by 13 to Dallas and Buffalo before getting spanked by 24 by the New York Giants last week.
The Bucs ranked in the top half of the NFL on offense in only one of Gruden’s seven seasons, but the defense always gave them a chance. So that the Bucs rank 25th in yards is no shock to Barber.
The plunge of his defense from ninth in 2008 is another matter.
“I thought we’d have a better start even though we played some difficult opponents,” he said. “A lot of the guys that have been here grew up in Monte’s system, and we were very successful at it because we knew exactly what to do. There’s always going to be a learning curve, a transition. It’s the intricacies, the little details that show up in pressure situations, that are beating us.”