Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

December 06, 2018 at 1:12 am.

Bucs defense making difference in recent weeks

It seems like it was a different season, and in some ways it’s hard to believe it happened, but once upon a time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers upset the New Orleans Saints 48-40.

It happened in Week 1. The Bucs won a shootout with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback passing for 417 yards and four touchdowns while running for another score.

The Saints (10-2) rebounded to win 10 straight games before losing at Dallas 13-10.

However, the Bucs soon went the other direction. After a 2-0 start, Tampa Bay (5-7) lost seven of its next eight games, changed quarterbacks twice, from Fitzpatrick to Jameis Winston, Winston to Fitzpatrick and back to Winston again.

Now Tampa Bay has won two in a row but has to run the table to have a winning record and shot at the post-season.

Perhaps their toughest remaining test will come Sunday at 1 p.m. when the Bucs host the Saints at Raymond James Stadium.

“We already know we’re in our playoffs and I can’t stress it more,” defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. “It’s either win or go home.”

Tampa Bay has won their last two games against the Saints, including the 2017 regular-season finale at home.

The Bucs also are on bit of a roll, having won games at home over the 49ers and Panthers. Jameis Winston has returned as the starter and played well, passing for 561 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Winston has been at the center of the turnaround, but the Bucs improved defense is probably the biggest story of the second half of their season.

Since Week 7, the Bucs rank second in the NFL in sacks (24), tied for third in third-down percentage (33.3) and 10th in passing yards per game (216.3).

“Well, our players have responded to a lot of different opportunities,” defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said. “We’ve put some guys in some spots based on a number of things, injuries and so forth. But the plus of it, we got a hungry group of guys, a bunch of guys who really want the opportunity to play and when given that chance, so far they’ve responded and so we’re anxious to see that continue.”

The Bucs’ defense will face its biggest test Sunday again when they host the New Orleans Saints, who are averaging 34.9 points per game, the second-most in the NFL.

Tampa Bay stunned New Orleans 48-40 in Week 1, but the Saints shook off the loss to win 10 games in a row. However, they’re coming off a 13-10 loss at Dallas Nov. 29.

“They’re going to come with some fire,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said of the Saints.

For the first six weeks, the Bucs defense was the worst in the league. Injuries played a role. The pass rush was produced mostly by Pierre-Paul with little help. Smith was fired after his defense allowed 34.6 points per game.

Enter Duffner, who debuted by beating the Cleveland Browns 26-23 in overtime. But with linebacker Kwon Alexander going on injured reserve and later linebacker Lavonte David missing a few games with a knee sprain, the Bucs allowed 37 points to the Bengals and 42 points to Carolina, both road losses.

McCoy felt the Bucs defense needed to become closer and begin bonding, so he organized a dinner.

“I’ve been doing this for a while so it seemed like something needed to be done and I did it,” McCoy said. “As little as people think I do around here, I’m a lot smarter and savvier than people give me credit for. It seemed like something needed to be done and I did it and to make it easier on guys, just let them show up. I’m fortunate enough to be able to set things up and make sure guys that showed up had a good time. That’s all it was. Lavonte did his part the following the week and so on and so forth. It’s been helpful and you see evidence of it.”

The Bucs may be hungry for another win, but Saints quarterback Drew Brees is likely to have other ideas. The Saints still are playing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

SERIES HISTORY: 54th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 32-21. Bucs have won the last two meetings, including a 48-40 win at New Orleans.