Opinion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes for Super Bowl repeat hinge on encore performance by defense
TAMPA — If there was one play from the blowout that epitomized the state of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they intensify the quest to repeat as Super Bowl champs, it came courtesy of Shaquil Barrett in the middle of the third quarter on Sunday.
On a fourth down, Barrett feigned a blitz, then dropped into coverage. Jalen Hurts, the young Eagles quarterback locked on his target, tried to loft a pass over the linebacker’s head. No go. Barrett took to the sky to deflect the pass – to himself – for an open-field interception. Then he zipped and dashed 17 yards with the return.
“That was the play of the year!” Bucs receiver Mike Evans declared after Tampa Bay put away Philadelphia by a 31-15 count to advance to the NFC divisional playoffs.
Evans, who blistered Philly’s heavy man coverage for nine catches and 117 yards, had a rather impressive feat himself on the first snap following Barrett’s tip-pick. He turned upfield after catching a pass off a corner route, shrugging off a defender, tip-toeing the sideline and finishing off a 36-yard touchdown with a back flip.
Yet the big-play wideout seemed genuinely excited by Barrett’s feat, which began with some crafty Football IQ and ended with some remarkable athleticism.
Then there was the symbolism. Barrett showed that he was back in form after missing the previous two games with a knee injury.
“He looked healthy as hell when he was running, didn’t he?” Bucs coach Bruce Arians marveled of Barrett’s return.
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That constitutes some serious good news for the defending champs (14-4), who have spent this season trying to beat injury attrition as much as they have the opponents. Barrett was one of three key starters who returned to the Todd Bowles-coordinated defense after missing multiple games. Linebacker Lavonte David came off injured reserve, where he rehabbed from a foot injury and missed three games. Linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul missed the previous three games while battling through a torn rotator cuff that he had called the worst football injury of his career.
Also, starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis (back) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) were considered “iffy” all week. Davis made it back; Murphy-Bunting didn’t in a game-day decision.
And it’s no better on the other side of the football. The Bucs were without their top two running backs, Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. Fournette has missed three games with a hamstring injury; Jones is nursing a twisted ankle. Yet Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard stepped in to rush for a combined 97 yards, then added 48 yards on seven receptions.
It was tough to guarantee that Bernard, a crafty vet for sure, would be so effective after coming off IR, sidelined four games with hip and knee injuries. He had 83 yards from scrimmage.
“Band-Aids and duct tape,” Arians said. “He played his ass off.”
Arians knows. For the Bucs to legitimately defend their crown, they will have to live up to the NFL’s ubiquitous “next man up” mantra. No two seasons are alike in the NFL, and the Bucs – who returned all 22 starters from the offense and defense of the Super Bowl unit – can vouch for that.
While their mettle was tested last season with the manner in which they overcame early and midseason struggles to get hot and click down the stretch, this season the challenges have come so hard and often with the health challenges.
Sure, Tom Brady is as much of a glue as he’s always been. On Sunday, playing with a depleted receiving corps – star wideout Chris Godwin went down a few weeks ago with a season-ending torn ACL, and now fill-in Cyril Grayson is sidelined by a hamstring injury – Brady still managed to slice up the Eagles defense with cold efficiency. When in trouble, he often looked for Evans and longtime security blanket Rob Gronkowski (five catches, 31 yards, TD). But with the production at running back, Brady was able to execute a balanced attack – even if the task was made tougher (four sacks) by another injury, to freshly-minted All-Pro right tackle Tristin Wirfs , who suffered an ankle injury.
Yet Brady sure could use a boost, too, from the Bucs defense that was so essential during the stretch run to winning the last Super Bowl.
That’s why Barrett’s big play represented another dimension.
Brady may have seven rings, but defense wins championships, right?
Let’s just say Brady can’t do it again without a stiff defense. You know, complementary football.
During the last postseason run, the Bucs won at New Orleans by collecting four turnovers. They upset the Packers in the NFC title game with five sacks of Aaron Rodgers and two turnovers. They crushed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl by pummeling Patrick Mahomes in an effort that included three sacks and two picks.
For much of this season, though, the Bucs defense has been inconsistent and sometimes undeniably shaky. No one feels sorry for the rash of injuries that hampered the Bucs defense. It’s the NFL. Injuries come with the territory. Yet it’s also the perfect time for the Bucs to perhaps field a defense that might be as healthy as it has been all season.
“I thought we would have our starting defense for the first time since the first game, and then Sean (Murphy-Bunting) couldn’t go at the last second,” Arians said. “Hopefully, we’ll have them all back out there next week.”
It certainly matters immensely. With Barrett and Pierre-Paul rotating on a “pitch count,” and with David roaming sideline to sideline again, the Bucs defense looked like its old self in bottling up Hurts (39 rushing yards) and containing the passing game. In short, if the front seven is fortified, the back end suddenly gets a lot better.
“It felt like having your big brother back out there with you,” cornerback Jamel Dean said. “So, I know what they are going to bring to the table.”
No, it wasn’t perfect. Tampa Bay gave up the shutout in the fourth quarter. Yet there’s the potential of the unit hitting its stride in the nick of time.
“I feel like everything is slowly coming back together,” Dean added “I feel like the energy was there that we have been missing for the second half of the season…It felt like we were getting our swag back.”
Which could go a long way toward the next play of the year.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell .
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes for Super Bowl repeat hinge on encore performance by defense