Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan had only been on the job a few hours last February when he discovered the primary cause of the worst collective defensive performance in Tampa Bay franchise history.
Scanning the tape of the Bucs' abysmal 2011 season, one in which they surrendered a franchise-worst 494 points, Sheridan quickly noted a lack of hustle and some poor technique, but ultimately decided an uncanny penchant for allowing big plays was the biggest problem.
Seven months later, Sheridan believes he and head coach Greg Schiano have the Bucs hustling again, but the coaches admit the players' technique remains a little spotty and there's no denying the big plays remain. In fact, they are more prevalent than ever.
Through two games, the Bucs have allowed 15 plays of 20 yards or more – one on the ground seven each through the air against the Panthers and Giants.
That has the Bucs on a pace to give up 112 such plays, nearly double the 77 they allowed last season. And the Dallas Cowboys will be looking to add to the total today at Cowboys Stadium.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who has had some video-game like efforts against the Bucs while throwing for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions with a 144.8 passer rating in three games, has developed into a big-play factory.
He has an uncanny ability to move around in the pocket and extend plays and, with the Bucs still searching for the bug fixes in their pass rush and coverage techniques, presents an alarming threat to Tampa Bay's defense.
"He's definitely a nightmare, because he's going to move around and try to throw the ball down the field and take a whole lot of what we call shots off of that,'' Sheridan said.
"He's always done that, so we have to have a mindset that we're at least going to box him in so that he doesn't have a chance to get on the perimeter and extend the play and turn it into a backyard football game.''
The Bucs got into one of those last week against the Giants. The results were disturbing. During a 41-34 loss, Tampa Bay allowed a franchise-worst 604 total yards, including an opponent-record 510 passing by quarterback Eli Manning.
Along the way, the Bucs allowed a run of 23 yards to Ahmad Bradshaw, but it was the seven Manning pass plays ranging from 20 to 80 yards that left many questioning the Bucs' defensive strategies and prowess.
In particular, it was the blitz calls that came under scrutiny. It was against heavy blitzes that Manning burned the Bucs for two of the longest and biggest plays of the game: An 80-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz that erased what had been a two-touchdown lead and a 50-yard strike to Hakeem Nicks that set up the winning touchdown.
Both plays came late in the fourth quarter of a game in which the defense was on the field for 76 plays. While Bucs players steadfastly refused to admit fatigue played a factor in the big plays, Sheridan tends to disagree.
"Our guys were definitely spent after the game,'' Sheridan said. "By the same token, it's never just one thing, or else you would just go out and fix (that one thing).''
The good news for the Bucs is there is not one cause of the big plays they don't perceive as fixable. For example, they believe they can limit Romo's effectiveness simply by containing him in the pocket.
"When you look at the big-play reel, a lot of them are plays were it's not initially open and then he moves,'' Schiano said of Romo. "They've made several big plays when he's done that, so we have to try to keep him in there.''
The Bucs can't stop, though, at simply bottling up Romo. They'll have to get to him, harass him and ultimately take him down, which they failed to do against Manning. Sheridan took some of the blame, saying his play design might have slowed the Bucs' pass rushers because it often called for the linemen to stunt or loop around one another instead of attacking straight ahead.
"We could have helped our defensive linemen out a little bit by giving them an opportunity to (use) a more conventional, straight-ahead rush," Sheridan said. "I think they probably felt like they would've had more success with that."
The way the Bucs deploy their pass rushers is not the only thing they're thinking of changing in an effort to eliminate the big plays. Tampa Bay also is thinking of altering the number of pass rushers it deploy.
"When you give up the amount of yards we did the other day, you rethink a lot of stuff," Schiano said. "So there are little things we need to tweak but we're not going to have a wholesale change.''
Instead, they'll simply try to get better, particularly in the secondary, where the Bucs believe poor technique contributed largely to their surrendering big plays.
"Technique-wise, we've got to hold (our players) accountable,'' Schiano said. "That's our job as coaches and we've got to get them to do it. We have players that can do it, so we've got to get them to that point where they (do it) consistently."
"But when you look at the big plays we've given up, I think it really is a matter of all of the above. Some of it is definitely technique errors. But there are probably a couple of calls we'd like to have back, too. And some of it is the quarterback playing very well. It's a perfect storm, really.''
One way or another, the Bucs have to stop the downpour. They're convinced they can do it with better technique, better play calling and some different play designs, but also admit it may take a while.
"This thing should look a hundred times better come December,'' cornerback Eric Wright said. "But we're not looking that far ahead right now. Right now we're just looking to get better today and get better tomorrow.''