TAMPA — It’s a work in progress. We’re not there yet. We’ve got a long way to go.
Those are some of the stock phrases you hear from Buccaneers defensive players as Tampa Bay prepares for Saturday’s preseason game at Buffalo.
But there’s a growing sense in the locker room that a simple seven-word phrase will tell the story of a 2014 franchise desperate to recapture past glory.
“Buc Ball started off with great defense,’’ said new head coach Lovie Smith, who tutored Bucs linebackers on Tony Dungy’s original staff in Tampa. “Defense expecting to win the football game, get takeaways and all that good stuff with special teams. Our version of Buc Ball is that — great defense, great special teams, but with a productive offense.’’
Through two exhibition games, even with Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner sidelined by a hamstring injury, Tampa Bay’s first-team defense has been stellar.
The Jaguars and the Dolphins combined to score one offensive touchdown against the Bucs in the opening half, averaging only 4.5 yards per snap in the first two quarters.
“I think they’ve played really well, and I think more things will start opening up the more we play together,’’ said Verner, a targeted free agent from Tennessee who returned to the practice field Tuesday. “You see flashes here and there of the potential to be really good. I’ve been impressed.’’
So has Smith ... up to a point.
Led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Bucs have been stingy on defense, but they’ve posted only two sacks and one takeaway heading into a nationally televised afternoon matchup against the Bills.
“We definitely want to get more turnovers as a defense,” said McCoy’s inside partner, free-agent addition Clinton McDonald. “We’ve got a while to go. Coach Smith is right — we’re not there yet. We’re working hard. Everybody is encouraging each other. And that’s the thing about a great defense, it’s not just one person making a lot of plays.’’
McCoy has certainly done his part.
“He’s unbelievable,” Bucs outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “Gerald might be the best player in the NFL right now.”
While McCoy has never looked more disruptive, he’s waiting for some help.
Defensive end Michael Johnson, signed from Cincinnati to provide heat off the right edge, is still looking for his first tackle or quarterback pressure as a Buccaneer.
When the Bucs emerged as an NFL power in 1997, defense led the way. Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks set the tone, while safety John Lynch provided intimidation while roaming the secondary.
McCoy was asked whether this defense needs to be the driving force for a return to relevance.
“Yes, we have to,” McCoy said. “If the other team can’t score, they can’t win. Who’s to say we can’t win the game on defense? Let’s say our offense isn’t having a good day. Why can’t we take the ball away twice and put it in the end zone? That’s what we’re working toward.’’
Tampa Bay starters are expected to play into the third quarter Saturday, a final opportunity to fly around and show Smith and his staff that the Tampa 2 is alive and well.
“There’s a standard that has been set by a bunch of legends in this game,’’ McCoy said. “It’s tough to repeat what they did, but they set a standard and coach Smith has set a standard. We’re getting closer, but we’re not there yet.”
When will the Bucs defense know it has arrived?
“When we bring a Super Bowl trophy home,” McCoy said. “Until then, and even then, you can improve. Until we hoist that Lombardi (Trophy) we’re not there yet.”
There’s that notion again.