How Buccaneers DC Todd Bowles created the NFL’s best defense

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In 2018, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has a serious defensive problem. Their defense ranked dead last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics under defensive coordinators Mark Duffner and Mike Smith. When the team replaced head coach Dirk Koetter with Bruce Arians, Arians made one of the more astute free-agent moves he’s made in his estimable career — he called Todd Bowles, who had been let go by the Jets after a four-year 24-40 record as their head coach. Bowles wasn’t able to get it done with a team that seemed to be in the middle of endless rebuilds and salary cap bleeds, but he’s always been a great defensive coach, and Arians had no doubt about that.

Bowles played under Arians when Arians was the head coach at Temple, and he hired Bowles to be his defensive coordinator when he became the Cardinals’ head coach in 2013. So, it was no surprise when Arians tagged Bowles once again to be his guy on the other side of the ball.

In 2019, Bowles took the Bucs’ defense from 32nd to sixth in FO’s defensive metrics. Shaquil Barrett, a five-year reserve pass-rusher for the Broncos before he signed a one-year, $4 million deal to play on Bowles’ defense, all of a sudden led the NFL in sacks with 19.5. Cornerback Jamel Dean came in as a third-round pick out of Auburn and showed that he could hang in the NFL right away. Under Bowles, a defense that had been in total disarray was playing with discipline, confidence, and bravado.

So, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that in an NFL that is seeing scoring and passing efficiency like never before, Bowles is the guy who’s put the league’s one consistently dominant defense on the field. The Bucs rank first in FO’s defensive metrics, and they’re quite a ways ahead of the Steelers, a formidable defense as well, who place second.

If there was one test that was going to expose any weakness in this defense, it was going to be the Sunday matchup against the Packers. Green Bay came in as the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, putting up 38 points per game, and Aaron Rodgers was playing as well as he had ever been in his slam-dunk Hall of Fame career.

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The Bucs made Rodgers look like a Division II rookie who was trying to get the snap count together in garbage time of a preseason game. In a 38-10 thrashing, Rodgers, who came into the game with 13 touchdowns, no interceptions, and just three sacks, completed 16 of 35 passes for 160 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, five sacks, and a quarterback rating of 35.4 — the third-worst of his career. After two early scoring drives, that defense settled in, and the Packers were given nothing the rest of the game.

“We have to play our game,” Bowles said last Thursday of Rodgers and the Packers. “We’re more worried about what we do and think we can do to win as opposed to worrying about the opposition. If you have to worry about the opposition and then yourself, that’s two birds with one stone. We try to concentrate on us. We know every week we’re going to face a good opponent – in this case a great opponent – so it’s a big challenge for us.”

Bowles put together as impressive a defensive game plan as I’ve seen in a very long time, and the hallmarks of this game plan are hallmarks of what’s made this defense great all season long.