Secret behind Bucs' defensive turnaround? Back to basics

TAMPA, Fla. -- Defensive excellence has long been synonymous with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Maybe too synonymous.

"As a veteran defense," 14-year veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks said, "we tend to have too much respect for ourselves."

In 2006, the Buccaneers' defensive players and coaches allowed themselves to get caught up in their consistent success. They became complacent. They cut corners in preparation. They simply believed their experience and talent would overcome whatever challenges they faced from injuries (and there were several) or opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. Predictably, the Bucs wound up ranking 17th in the NFL in total defense.

Then came an attitude makeover. From renowned defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin on down, the unit went back to the approach that had regularly put it among the league's elite.

And, in 2007, the Buccaneers' defense soared from 17th to second.

During their three-day minicamp this week, the Buccaneers are focused on two areas: 1. Doing whatever is necessary to improve on last year's one-and-done playoff appearance after winning the NFC South championship; 2. Keeping the defense in the upper echelon of the league.

Both goals are lofty, but at least the Buccaneers have last season to use as a blueprint for defensive improvement.

"(Kiffin) raised the bar right back to where it needed to be in terms of accountability, starting with himself," Brooks said. "He made no bones about him letting the team down, the organization down, from a coaching standpoint. So he went back in and got his staff solidified to where he could trust them to teach his defense. We got back to fundamentals."

"It started with me," said Kiffin, who in his 13th season with the Bucs is the longest-tenured defensive coordinator in the NFL and regarded as one of the finest defensive coaches in the game. "I let some things slide a little bit. I believe so much in teaching and coaching. We didn't hold ourselves accountable, so we got back to that."

Bringing defensive backs coach Raheem Morris back to the Buccaneers' staff in '07, after he left to become defensive coordinator at Kansas State, was a crucial move to that end. Morris is among the finest teachers among Tampa Bay's assistants and he made sure players took nothing for granted when it came to understanding all aspects of the team's Cover Two scheme as well as technical points.

Brooks and fellow defensive captain Ronde Barber, a 12-year veteran cornerback, also were vital to the turnaround. They assumed stronger leadership roles, showing younger players, with words and by example, what they needed to do to perform at a higher level.

In meetings, they were the ones always taking notes, always asking questions. In practice, they were the ones pushing the rookies to do a little extra -- but no more than they pushed themselves.

And it was Brooks and Barber who reminded the younger players on Tampa Bay's defense of the players who had established the lofty standards they were expected to maintain -- Hardy Nickerson, John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Shelton Quarles.

"Being a veteran defense sometimes tends to hurt you because you use the three most dangerous words: 'I got it,'" Brooks said. "You can't use those words in this game because it'll come back to bite you. And we were atrocious. So the coaches got back to teaching the fundamentals and we improved."

In addition to the attitude adjustment, the Buccaneers' defense also got younger last year with the addition of first-round end Gaines Adams from Clemson. Adams became a starter in the second half of the season and finished with six sacks. Another key rookie addition last season was safety Tenard Jackson, a rare starter as a first-year player. The Bucs also acquired from former Arena Football League defensive player of the year Greg White, an end from the Orlando Predators, and he wound up leading the team with eight sacks.

General Manager Bruce Allen continued the defensive youth movement last April with another first-round selection, cornerback Aqib Talib from Kansas.

The balance of experienced and younger players should again serve Tampa Bay's defense well. So should the greater demand that the coaches and players put on themselves -- and on each other.

"We've been really hard on ourselves," Brooks said. "We want to do better than what we did last year. Not just defending a (division) title. We look at our chances as good as anybody else's in terms of making the Super Bowl."

Throughout the offseason, Kiffin and his assistant coaches have spent long hours making adjustments to the defensive scheme. They have made subtle variations to coverages, blitzes, and zone dogs.

The idea is to give offensive coordinators a little something extra to ponder when preparing a game plan for the Bucs, and to force quarterbacks to have a little bit of hesitation when dropping back to throw. Usually, that's all it takes to get a sack and/or force a mistake.

"You have to keep up," Kiffin said. "Those offensive coordinators are in those laboratories, and they're looking at tape. It becomes a little bit of a chess game and you've got to tweak a few things every year. And the quarterbacks nowadays are like coaches; they're (working) year-round. They're out throwing the ball and reading all the blitzes and making the check-offs at the line of scrimmage."

"Monte just keeps plugging at it," Barber said. "He demands perfection. And when he gets it, we're a really good football team."

Never was that more apparent than last season.

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