When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started out 1-3, it appeared to foretell another rebuilding season. When they lost two straight to fall back to 3-5, the defense did not appear to be ready for prime time.
But suddenly the Buccaneers, after Sunday’s 14-5 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, showed this team has made progress in short order. Much of it has come on defense, which has now allowed 30 points (not counting the safety the offense was responsible for Sunday) in its past three games combined.
The Buccaneers are 6-5 with the win and find themselves over .500 for the first time since the middle of the 2012 season.
The Bucs are not a work of art, but they’re in playoff contention. This was also the story last season when they were 6-6 — and that ended with four straight losses and Lovie Smith getting fired.
But this year’s team has some real pluck. The Bucs’ defense picked off Russell Wilson, who had been gaining some steam in the MVP discussion in recent weeks, twice, including one by Bradley McDougald in the final 90 seconds of the game to seal the victory. The other INT came by heavy-hearted Bucs corner Alterraun Verner, who played in the game despite his father dying this weekend. There’s something special brewing here in what started out another lost season.
Wilson was held to 151 yards on 17-of-31 passing, and he was below 100 yards entering the fourth quarter. Although Wilson did some damage with his feet, the Buccaneers got after him and held the Seahawks to 1 for 11 on third downs until the final two minutes and three points total on offense.
The big plays came from all three levels of the Bucs’ defense. Lavonte David forced a crucial fumble and recovery on Jimmy Graham at the Tampa Bay 22-yard line with just over seven minutes remaining, and David’s 53-yard return helped flip the field and drain more clock. The Bucs sacked Wilson six times, including 1.5 each by rookie Noah Spence (who has been coming on of late) and Gerald McCoy.
Even with the Seahawks converting a fourth-and-14 and a third-and-16 in the final 3:30, the Buccaneers held on with the McDougald pick.
With victories now over the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and Seahawks — all featuring massive plays on defense — the Buccaneers have announced they’re legitimate under head coach Dirk Koetter. Sure, Jameis Winston had some shaky moments, such as a late end-zone pick on a terrible pass, and the Buccaneers left plenty of points on the field. But they also have improved dramatically since their 43-28 thrashing at home by the Atlanta Falcons.
The Bucs still are chasing the Falcons in the NFC South race and have some work to do with three division games remaining. But with the way their defense is playing now — and with the big-play potential of Winston to Mike Evans, who caught two touchdowns — they’re suddenly a fascinating team to watch down the stretch.
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