Seeing is believing: Todd Bowles’ defense carries the Bucs
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 13 September 2019

Todd Bowles apparently can see the future, at least one play at a time. But not even the Bucs’ defensive coordinator could’ve predicted his players would allow only one touchdown in their first two games of the season and excel in his new 3-4 scheme this quickly.

“If you ever had the privilege of being on the headset, (Bowles is) calling out the (opponent’s) plays before they’re ever being run and telling guys, ‘They’re coming,’ ” coach Bruce Arians said. “Sometimes we still don’t stop them, but he’s telling (the defense) what’s happening. Very, very sharp. I watched him do it in Arizona (as coordinator under Arians in 2013-14). We knew we had talent (with the Bucs). We knew we had speed here. He’s just an amazing teacher.’’

School was in session for the defense in Thursday night’s 20-14 win over the Panthers. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, buried on the Broncos’ depth chart behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb before signing a one-year contract with the Bucs in the offseason, had three sacks and four quarterback hits on Cam Newton. Rookie defensive end Anthony Nelson pitched in with a forced fumble and batted a ball down from Newton. Inside linebacker Kevin Minter stepped in for rookie Devin White, who left the game with an MCL sprain in the first quarter.

And cornerback Vernon Hargreaves produced the play of the game when he stopped running back Christian McCaffrey on fourth and 1 from the Bucs’ 2-yard line, inches short of the first-down marker, to seal the win with about a minute and a half left in the game.

A year or two ago, Newton would’ve tried to make the first down on a keeper. Instead, the Panthers attempted a version of the Philly Special, a play used by the Eagles in Super Bowl LII: Quarterback Nick Foles moved up to behind his offensive line, and the ball was directly snapped to running back Corey Clement. Clement pitched the ball to tight end Trey Burton, who passed to wide-open Foles for a touchdown.

In the Panthers’ version, the ball was snapped to McCaffrey, but instead of handing off to receiver Curtis Samuel, McCaffrey kept the ball and tried to reach the first-down marker, only to be shoved out of bounds by Hargreaves.

“If you’ve watched any football, you’ve seen (the Philly Special) three or four times,” Hargreaves said. “Once I saw Cam walk up to the line of scrimmage and act like he was talking, I had a pretty good idea what was going on. My man went in motion, and he came right to me.’’

Arians’ offense still is a work in progress. Quarterback Jameis Winston has struggled to find rhythm in the passing game. Mike Evans had a 41-yard bomb thrown his way Thursday. O.J. Howard has disappeared from the offense. Peyton Barber ran for 82 yards on 23 carries. Ronald Jones aggravated a toe injury and barely played. Who knew it would be the defense that would carry the Bucs early in the season?

A year ago, the Bucs allowed an average of 29 points per game. On Thursday, they kept the Panthers out of the end zone, allowing four field goals and a safety. In the Bucs’ opener, the 49ers scored only one touchdown, on a pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Bowles is so dialed in to what the opposing offense is doing that his intuition rarely fails. Case in point: The Bucs stopped the Panthers on three third-and-1 situations.

On one of those plays, they brought in a jumbo goal-line package featuring some of their bigger players. “Todd had a really good plan for that,’’ Arians said. “Got everybody lined up and subbed, and guys executed the defense extremely well.’’

Hargreaves has so much freedom, he’s allowed to determine whether he wants to cover a receiver with press or man-to-man coverage, or play off in a zone. “Coach Bowles, he gives me the keys,” Hargreaves said. “He says, ‘Do your thing.’ I appreciate that, and (it) allows you to play better.’’

Not many would’ve expected the Bucs to limit McCaffrey to 37 yards rushing on 16 carries, or that Newton, despite passing for 333 yards, would complete fewer than half his attempts, going 25-of-51. “That’s two weeks in a row we did a good job of not giving up touchdowns and defending every blade of grass,’’ Arians said.