Bucs defense has not earned your trust. It should have your attention
John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 25 November 2019

The kids have taken over the field. They're knocking down passes, ballcarriers and perceptions. Here's Carlton Davis snatching a ball from Calvin Ridley's grasp. There's Jamel Dean harassing Julio Jones. My goodness, here's Tampa Bay's Gen Z defense making longtime nemesis Matt Ryan finish his workday on the Falcons bench during a 35-22 victory on Sunday afternoon.

They do not yet have many interceptions, and they certainly don't have many NFL victories. But do they have your attention? This was the game you've been waiting for the Bucs to play on defense. It wasn't record-breaking or overwhelming, but it had enough clues to make you wonder if the worst is finally behind. It had enough hints to make you ponder a different kind of future.

"We can do something special here,'' said Davis who had his first career interception. "We can really change things and turn this program around with our play. We have a lot of high (draft) pick guys, which means there's a lot of talent there. Talent is not the issue. It's about work ethic and studying film and growing up and surviving our growing pains. I really think this group has a special future but it's not the time to take our eyes off the ball. This is a start. It's just a start.''

We know all about fresh starts. We've seen Tampa Bay try to reinvent itself every few years since winning a Super Bowl practically a full generation ago. We've seen defensive linemen who always fell short of the quarterback, and defensive backs who were constantly chasing receivers. So, no, it's not yet time to trust these wunderkinds. Not after one splashy week against one inferior opponent. Not when the NFL stat sheets say this is still one of the most porous defenses in the league.

But there was something about the way the young guys played that grabbed your attention on Sunday. They didn't sit back and try to outlast the Falcons. The Bucs played hard and aggressive. They hit Ryan. A lot. They jumped in front of receivers. A lot.

By game's end, the Bucs had six sacks, including two by 21-year old Devin White and another by 24-year-old Vita Vea. They had 16 pass breakups, which was more than the previous three games combined. The 22-year-old Davis had five. So did the 23-year-old Dean.

"Young guys were making plays all over the field,'' said linebacker Kevin Minter. "That's big for this team. We've been kind of waiting for that light to turn on for some guys, and I feel like it did today. This can be a special defense, but we have to keep that train rolling.''

The final score does not do justice to the way the defense played. Atlanta's first touchdown was gift-wrapped by a Jameis Winston interception. The Falcons only had to drive 19 yards to find the endzone. It was, by the way, the ninth time an opponent has scored a touchdown against the Bucs following an interception this season. Four were returned for TDs, and four others came on drives of 20 yards or less.

Atlanta's last touchdown was also meaningless. The score was already lopsided and the Bucs were simply making sure the Falcons did not get a quick strike. "They did an excellent job today getting after us,'' Ryan said. "We weren't able to get into any rhythm.''

It was almost as if all of those late meltdowns against the Giants, Titans and Seahawks prepared the Bucs secondary for the fourth quarter on Sunday "Corner is a lonely job,'' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. "You have to have tough skin to play corner. You're going to give up a few plays here and there but you have to make sure you make your share, and always understand and learn from what happened to you. I thought those guys took a step today.''

So where does all of this lead? Are we seeing real growth or just a random bit of flash? Is this defense prepared to take a big step forward or will it step in another hole? And what will next year look like if free agents Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett are not brought back? "We just need to finish this season right,'' Dean said. "If we keep improving and carry that over, we'll grow from there.''

It's been a decade since the Bucs had a defense that was even close to being elite. It's so far behind Tampa Bay, it's almost difficult to recall now. So maybe the time is finally right to envision a better future.