Buccaneers defensive turnaround on pace for a historic finish

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The Wall Street Journal is not a place you would normally got to for a deeper dive into the NFL’s hottest defense, but that’s who discovered that the turnaround the Buccaneers defense has made since its sluggish start earlier this year has been a near historic one.

As reported in this story, the Journal discovered that the Bucs have lowered their points-per-game mark from 29.0 in Games 1-8 to 12.8 in Games 9-13 and that the 16.2 ppg improvement is the best since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

According to WSJ, the current NFL record for the best points-per-game improvement by a defense between the first and second half of the season is 15.6, set by the 1988 Falcons. It also pointed out that since then no team has trimmed its points allowed average by more than 14.5 points.

The key to the turnaround is three-fold. For starters, coordinator Mike Smith has “dummied things down’’ a bit, according to linebacker Lavonte David and that, in turn, has allowed the Bucs to become more adept at taking the ball away.

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Since producing a -9 turnover differential through Week 4, the Bucs have improved that mark to plus-6 and are currently tied for the league lead in takeaways with 25, 14 of which have come during their current five-game winning streak.

The majority of those 14 takeaways, by the way, have been interceptions, the Bucs stealing the ball off the pass 10 times during their streak, including seven times in their last three games against quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.

The foundation for all those interceptions, meanwhile, is an improved pass rush, one that has become far less reliant on blitzes, in part because defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy have been nothing short of dominant of late.

According to ProFootballFocus, Ayers ranks fourth in the league among 4-3 ends in pass-rush productivity, which takes into account all quarterback sacks, hits and hurries, while McCoy ranks sixth among 4-3 defensive tackles in the same metric.

That and the play of rookie defensive end Noah Spence, the Bucs second-round draft pick who is fourth among NFL rookies with 5.5 sacks, has allowed the Bucs to succeed at getting after the passer despite blitzing on just 25.5-percent of their passing plays.

That blitz percentage is well below the league average of 30.5-percent of pass plays, and it’s allowed the Bucs to keep seven players in coverage, where cornerback Brent Grimes is currently tied for second in the NFL in pass breakups with 17, according to PFF.

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