The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had perhaps the most suffocating defense in NFL history. That unit had hall of fame players at every level. Their 12.3 points allowed per game is one of the fewest in modern NFL history. To even be mentioned in the same conversation as this team is extremely high praise.
Flash forward to today and the Bucs are champions once again. As a result, they will always be compared to that great 2002 team. Despite a strong defense in 2020, the modern day Buccaneers defense doesn’t hold a candle to their predecessor. But could they get to that level in the coming season?
If Todd Bowles and the defense want to be in the conversation of possibly the greatest defense ever then they will need to improve on an already strong unit. Specifically, a few of the key players on this defense are going to have to take a step forward. If these three can develop their game even further then it would take the defense to that next level.
The Bucs nickel corner is entering his third season. And while we have seen ups-and-downs from him, Murphy-Bunting has shown flashes of brilliance. Look no further than his postseason performance where he pulled in interceptions in three different games. This is key to the Buccaneers defense taking the next step.
Currently, the Bucs lack a true ball hawk. While Carlton Davis has established himself as one of the better cornerbacks in the game, he has just five career interceptions in three years. It is here as a playmaker where Murphy-Bunting has a chance to make his mark.
If he can put together a Ronde Barber-type season as a dominant nickel who can take the ball away, then this defense would be significantly better. This is of course a high bar to reach. However, if Murphy-Bunting can force just three or four more interceptions next year than his one in the 2020 regular season then it would go a long way.
White has already established himself as one of the best linebackers in the game. His size, speed and playmaking ability stand out above most at his position. However, there is one aspect of his game holding him back.
White’s ability to drop into coverage is not on par with the rest of his impressive skill set. Although he has flashed ability with his top shelf athleticism, that hasn’t translated to being able to cover his man consistently. This is where he has to improve for White and this Bucs defense to become one of the all time greats.
It would be great if this improvement in coverage came with interceptions, which is the biggest element this team lacks compared to the 2002 Buccaneers. However, if White can just force quarterbacks to look elsewhere then that would give this fierce pass rush time to get home. This would result in more turnovers for him and those around him.
Winfield is key to everything that the Buccaneers want to do on defense. His range and coverage ability over the top are critical to the defense; particularly because no one can replicate it. He is the safety net that lets this group play freely and aggressively. This aggression should reward the second year safety in 2021.
There is no doubt that Winfield impressed as a rookie. And he seemed to get better as the year went on; making some game changing and season defining plays in the playoffs. This is an indication of both his talent and his adjustments to the NFL level as he progressed through his rookie year.
As he continues to adjust to the speed of the NFL, Winfield will continue to make more plays. Just being able to identify things quicker and be just a step or two faster will put him in position for more interceptions. We began to see this more in the super bowl where he had two pass deflections and an interception on Patrick Mahomes.
The Key Takeaways
The greatest difference between the 2002 Buccaneers defense and this version was their ability to force turnovers, specifically interceptions. The ’02 Bucs forced 31 interceptions while the current team forced just 15 last year. If this gap can be narrowed in 2021 then this Bucs defense can reach the level of the original championship Buccaneers.
These three players had a combined two interceptions in the regular season last year. However, we saw this group more than double that amount in the playoffs. They have shown the ability. Now the next step is consistency.
This is always the hardest thing for young players, but it’s a necessity if they want to take the next step. That’s the step these second- and third-year players will need to take for this Bucs defense to become perhaps the greatest defense in franchise history and thus maybe the greatest defense in NFL history.