While most of the media has been obsessed with Tampa Bay's efforts to build an offensive attack, the defense, which has carried the team for several years, has been treated like a stepchild.
Well, all must be swell on the defensive side of the football in Buc Land, right? Wrong. Yes, it should still be one of the best in the league next season, but will the loss of Tony Dungy and several defensive players this offseason cause defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to watch his defense take a step backward in 2002?
If Tampa Bay is to win the NFC South Division in Gruden's first year as head coach of the Bucs, the defense will likely have to carry the load for the first quarter of the 2002 regular season as they did throughout Tony Dungy's six-year tenure in Tampa Bay. Why? Because it will probably take Jon Gruden's offensive troops at least three or four weeks to fully digest the new offensive system and execute it consistently against opposing teams.
The Bucs lost two starters on defense this offseason in cornerback Donnie Abraham and middle linebacker Jamie Duncan. The Bucs also lost some depth on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle James Cannida, defensive end Steve White, and linebacker Jeff Gooch all departed Tampa Bay via free agency.
How much will the loss of those defensive players impact the Bucs? Well, Tampa Bay has suffered similar losses in past seasons, but their policy of drafting players to groom for situations like these have paid off. Tampa Bay is hoping they can say the same this season.
Despite having at least one new defensive starter every year since 1997, the Bucs have given up the fewest amount of points in the league since 97' with 1,342. The Pewter Pirates have also finished ranked no lower than ninth defensively in the last five years.
Here is a look at how Tampa Bay's defense has finished in the last five years in terms of overall defensive ranking:
1997 3rd (289.1 yards per game)
1998 2nd (271.6 yards per game)
1999 3rd (267.5 yards per game)
2000 9th (300 yards per game)
2001 6th (290.8 yards per game)
Although Abraham lost his starting job to CB Brian Kelly just six games into last season, the defense will likely feel his departure the most. The "Iceman" ranks first in franchise history with 31 career interceptions and although he was the team's nickel back for most of the 2001 season, he still managed to haul in six interceptions.
Kelly played well enough at the left cornerback position last season to receive a six-year, $15 million contract from the Bucs on March 18. While Kelly remains the starting left cornerback, second-year CB Dwight Smith impressed the team during both offseason mini-camps. Smith played well as the team's nickel back and he played even better in Kelly's place (broken hand) -- starting alongside Pro Bowl CB Ronde Barber. Smith has some big shoes to fill, but he feels he's more than capable of picking up where Abraham left off.
"I'm ready for it," said Smith. "I'm trying to work this offseason to put the trust in my coaches to trust in me and believe that I can do it. I just want to get out there and play football. There are a lot of high expectations around here, because after Donnie leaves, that's six or seven picks a year. Somebody has to step in and help fill the void left by him, and that comes down on me. All I can do is stay around as much as possible, learn as much as possible and still go to Ronde (Barber) and Brian (Kelly) since they're still here, and just become the best football player Dwight Smith can be."
Duncan's departure leaves Tampa Bay with a big question mark at the heart of their defense – the middle linebacker position. That's not to say Duncan's play was great, because it wasn't. But the team knew what they had in Duncan. He was good, but inconsistent. He never came close to filling Hardy Nickerson's shoes, which wasn't the easiest task in the world. As a result of Nickerson's departure, the Bucs have watched their run defense become more and more vulnerable.
Since Duncan left Tampa Bay for St. Louis, the Bucs have opted to move Shelton Quarles, who started at the strongside of the defense for the last three seasons, to the starting middle linebacker position. Quarles feels confident he will perform well at the position, but during both mini-camps, the middle of Tampa Bay's defense has looked suspect. In Quarles' defense, no pun intended, the defense has not been at full strength. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, defensive end Marcus Jones and ROLB Derrick Brooks have all been held out of the mini-camps while they recover from their individual offseason surgeries.
Speaking of offseason surgery, MLB Nate Webster has been a victim as well. His surgery along with his undersized frame (5-foot-11, 225 pounds) might have actually been the main reasons the team opted to move Quarles over the middle of the defense. Webster saw plenty of playing time last season. Kiffin rotated Webster and Duncan often, but Gruden and Co. feel like Quarles is the type of player that can play at the middle linebacker position full-time.
"We moved Shelton Quarles into the middle linebacker position to get more athletic in my opinion," said Gruden. "The guy has a real good handle on our defense. He's a very good communicator and leader. We think he has some good sideline-to-sideline ability. He can play on every down. That's a major change for us. And we expect Nate Webster to compete."
Tampa Bay is lacking quality depth at the linebacker position, but they may address that after June 1. The Bucs could take a look at bringing Nickerson back aboard their ship when the Jags release him on or after June 1 due to salary cap implications. Another possibility is former Minnesota Viking MLB Ed McDaniel. While both players will be available, landing either one of them could be a difficult task. McDaniel is available now, but some of his contract demands may cause the Pewter Pirates to pass on his services. While the idea of Nickerson heading back to Tampa Bay to finish his career in the same defensive scheme he thrived in for seven seasons (1993-99') might make sense, the 36-year-old veteran (turns 37 in September) may opt to retire. Even if Nickerson doesn't retire, he has a reputation of chasing money before his Super Bowl aspirations. While no one can blame him for seeking the biggest contract possible, the Bucs would not likely offer him much more than the league minimum, which could cause Nickerson to sign with any team willing to pay him more than that.
There's another question mark at the linebacker position. Al Singleton will start in place of Quarles at the strongside of the defense. Singleton has received significant playing time during his five-year career. Singleton has played in 71 games, but has started just one of them. Last season, Singleton saw action in all 16 regular season games, but most of it was on special teams. Both Quarles and Singleton are in the last year of their contracts, which will provide them will all of the motivation they could possibly need this season.
The linebacker position is not the only one with question marks on it. Tampa Bay's defensive line has a few of them, too.
Will Sapp and Jones rebound from last year's disappointing outing? Neither player has seen action during the mini-camps (offseason surgery), but both look like they're in fantastic shape, especially Sapp. If Tampa Bay's defense is going to play close to their dominant 1999 form, Sapp is a player that will have to lead the pack. He hasn't played yet, but all signs suggest that the lean and mean Sapp is poised for a serious comeback in 2002.
Jones, who the Bucs made available to the Houston Texans in the Expansion Draft, is in a make or break year. He signed a seven-year contract extension at the end of the 2000 season – a season in which he recorded a career-high 13 sacks at the right defensive end position. He was moved to the left defensive end position following the acquisition of RDE Simeon Rice during the 2001 offseason and struggled to make the transition. Like Sapp, Jones played injured last year, but he'll have to play better this season if he wants remain a Buc after 2002. Jones has a cap value of $3.75 million for the next two seasons, which is the main reason the Bucs chose to place him on the expansion list and the primary reason why the Texans passed on him.
The Bucs will miss White and Cannida from a depth standpoint. Both players were able to fill in adequately on the defensive line. Tampa Bay signed DE Greg Spires this offseason in an attempt to replace White, but it's going to take him some time to grasp Tampa Bay's defensive system. The Bucs really feel DT Chuck Darby will fill in nicely for Cannida. Tampa Bay would still like to add another quality defensive tackle to their roster, but Darby looked sharp during the team's most recent mini-camp.
One could even venture to the Bucs' free safety position and place a question mark on it. Dexter Jackson, who has one year remaining on his contract, played well at times last season, but opposing offenses attacked that part of the field with success too often. The same happened with former Bucs FS Damien Robinson, but Jackson fared better in his first year as a starter than Robinson did in his first year. With one year under his belt, one year remaining on his contract and second-year S John Howell and rookie S Jermaine Phillips pushing him for the starting job, Jackson has all of the reasons in the world to build on his performance from last year.
There's one more loss that people might be overlooking on the defensive side of the football. Dungy may have not known much about offense, but he's earned the reputation of being a defensive guru. When the Bucs' defense struggled out of the gate last season, many people were quick to use the loss of defensive backs coach Herm Edwards and linebackers coach Lovie Smith as an excuse. While Kiffin and Dungy rallied their troops, they struggled to play solid football on a consistent basis. If the loss of Edwards and Smith wounded Tampa Bay's defense as much as some believe it did, how much will Tampa Bay's defense suffer due to Dungy's departure? After all, Dungy was the one that implemented the 4-3, one-gap, cover-2 scheme.
So, feel free to enjoy Tampa Bay's offensive facelift. Heck, the offensive free agent signings have been more entertaining than the Pewter Pirates' combined offensive productivity under Dungy. The offense needed the renovation, and the Bucs' defense may need the offense to carry the team for a change, depending on how Kiffin and Co. respond to their offseason losses.
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