The 2019 season was quite the rollercoaster for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At times, it seemed like a different team showed up each week.
Because of this mercurial appearance on television, many, including myself, failed to realize just how well the defense played considering all of the high scoring affairs they took part in.
One thing that was visibly consistent throughout the year though was the team’s stellar run defense. It was obvious from the start with stingy performances against the likes of Christian McCaffery, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and Todd Gurley.
The Buccaneers finished the year as the top-rated run defense both by standard counting stats (73.8 rushing yards per game allowed) and analytics (-30.6% defense-adjusted value over average, or DVOA).
DVOA measures a unit or player’s performance on a play-by-play basis and judges them against league averages. So, on a down-by-down basis, Tampa Bay was 30.6 percent better than the league average.
The numbers, analytics, and eye test all matched.
However, passing defense and overall defense are where the raw numbers, analytics, and eye tests start to diverge.
While Tampa Bay was 15th (343.9) in total yards per game allowed and 29th (28.1) points allowed, they came in at a whopping fifth in total defensive DVOA. Even crazier? When adjusted for the strength of the opponent, they move up to third.
How can this be? How can one unit be both top five in DVOA but bottom five in points allowed?
The answer, as many have likely already guessed, was turnovers. The Buccaneers’ offense committed a league-leading 41 turnovers in 2019, averaging a staggering 2.6 giveaways per game.
On the season, the Buccaneers were tied for seventh in both yards per play allowed (5.1) and sacks (47) and came in fifth in takeaways (28). They were also 11th in Football Outsiders‘ Defensive Drive Success Rate (dDSR) at 69.1 percent.
In other words, Tampa Bay’s defense forced teams off of the field without a first down or touchdown in 30.9 percent of all down series.
The problem was that they were simply on the field too much. They finished the season with 1,079 plays from scrimmage, good for fourth-most in the NFL.
This is despite also being top five in third-down conversion rate allowed (34 percent, fifth overall) and eighth in yards allowed per drive (29.90). It wasn’t that they couldn’t get off of the field, but it was how often they were constantly dragged back onto it.
The improvements engineered by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and his staff were actually quite significant once you look deeper into the numbers.
In 2018, the Buccaneers were 31st (6.1) in yards per play allowed, 19th in sacks (38), and 22nd in takeaways (17). They finished dead last in defensive DVOA both in 2018 and 2017 including 31st and 30th finishes in pass defense and 19th and 31st against the run. This season? They were 12th against the pass and first against the run by a wide margin.
The fact that this was done largely with rookies (Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Mike Edwards) and players that played under the previous regime (Jordan Whitehead, Carlton Davis, and Andrew Adams) patrolling the secondary makes it even more remarkable.
It’s no wonder Todd Bowles has been mentioned as a hot candidate for head coaching vacancies this offseason. A team looking for an experienced candidate and a quick turnaround on defense will likely have him on their radar and for good reason.
As for the defensive personnel, the team is poised to return several starters including key components Vita Vea and Devin White, along with five of the seven defensive backs that led the team in snaps played in 2019. The losses include Vernon Hargreaves III and, potentially, Andrew Adams.
The team also intends to extend Lavonte David, who recently was elected to the NFL All-Decade team. They reportedly consider him to be a critical element of the team’s current and future success.
It’s a fair bet most of the key players from this year’s defense will return in 2020. The question will be if they get an offense that can stop shooting itself in the foot.