The 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are an enigma, having never had such a dominating offense this far into the season, at least in the modern era, and a suspect defense.
The suspect defense isn’t the surprising part. Ever since Mike Smith joined the Bucs in 2016, he’s faced the ire of a significant portion of the fanbase because of how much of a liability the unit became. Until this season, the Bucs often found themselves behind their opponents and in quite a few instances, recipients of routs. Smith, who was hired by head coach Dirk Koetter, repaid the favor when he was running things in Atlanta and gave Koetter an opportunity to run their offense.
Unfortunately, like his time in Atlanta, Smith’s defenses were atrocious, often ranking near the bottom, if not dead last, in yards surrendered. This year has become no exception. Fortunately the Bucs offense, which in previous years often struggled completing drives, especially in the redzone, finally came together, becoming the current top offense in the NFL.
In relief of starter Jameis Winston, who’s served his three-game suspension, backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick amassed unfathomable numbers to start the season, topping over 1,200 yards passing, 11 passing touchdowns, and becoming even one of the team’s leading rushers. With the exception of the Monday night loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bucs found themselves ahead and tacking on with their quick strikes and efficient drives.
Teams often found themselves playing catchup and eventually abandoning the run. The games against the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Steelers were decided by a score. The Bucs deserve all the credit for coming out 2-1 in this stretch, but we’re approaching the week 4 game, traveling to Soldier Field to face the 2-1 Chicago Bears.
No one can compare Bears QB Mitch Tribusky, veteran QBs Drew Brees, Nick Foles and Ben Roethlisberger. The Bears look more comparable to the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles as a unit, but one huge X factor that could affect the outcome is the presence of linebacker Khalil Mack. Does anybody realistically expect Fitzpatrick to toss 400 yards again and multiple touchdowns? Likely not.
The current Bucs team has shades of the 1999 Bucs team in reverse—just enough points scored and just enough defense not to lose the game. One key difference between the 2018 Bucs and the team in previous years is that the new acquisitions Jason Pierre Paul and Vinny Curry are putting pressure on the QB and registering the sacks the unit was sorely missing last season.
If an opposing team finds themselves deep in the hole, they will toss the ball deep to try to catch up, so there are some intangibles that factor into this year’s low defensive ranking. When opposing teams dominate time of possession, it wears down the defense. The injury bug has also hit the Bucs particularly hard this season. Two key veterans in safety Chris Conte and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves are both on injured reserve placing rookies MJ Stewart and Carlton Davis in a sink-or-swim situation. This becomes compounded with Brent Grimes also recovering from injuries and being inactive.
When first round pick Vita Vea returns from his preseason injury, the Bucs should improve defensively by default, but the team can’t afford to lose any more momentum heading into their bye week. The team’s chances fare significantly better in the division and the playoffs at 3-1 rather than 2-2.
Is the unit capable of producing four quality quarters? They have shown themselves capable of producing three-and-outs, stalling drives and even recording a few turnovers. Yes, there is a chance, but the competition doesn’t get any easier given the Bucs’ uncertain QB situation, whether Winston will take his rightful spot back before suspension or the team continues to ride Fitzmagic and his inhuman stats.
Running seems to not be as high a priority with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and the defense is hurting as depth continues to thin out, particularly in the secondary. If the Bucs’ defense can’t hold the Bears to at least a low 200 passing yards and under a 300 total yard offense, there’s a good chance they likely won’t the rest of the season even with the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys on their schedule, who also currently rank low in total offense.