TAMPA — All those Sundays ago, the Bucs defense roamed the earth. It won a Super Bowl. It put offenses on their backs and Bucs fans on their feet.
Lovie Smith has turned back the clock. The Tampa 2 is back to Tampa. The scheme isn’t as popular as it once was in the NFL, but here it made a champion, and there is where Smith starts, at the beginning, with real pieces, with real talent here, there and maybe everywhere. This defense could be special. And it has special goals, seemingly crazy ones given its recent history, but they are what they are.
“Top of the league, definitely,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “We have all the talent, we have the scheme, we have the coaches, for sure. So we have everything necessary to be at the top of this league and that’s where I expect to be. Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
“We want to move in that position,” Smith said. “So, yes, that’s our goal, for people to be talking about us as, if not the best, one of the best. ... If we’re going to play our version of Buc ball, we need to have dominating defensive play.”
The first test is Sunday, when the Bucs try to reel in quarterback Cam Newton and the defending NFC South champion Panthers, who last season trounced the Bucs twice. But in Lovie’s world, his defense’s world, you compete not just against an offense, but against the other defense.
In Carolina, he’s talking about the No. 2 defense in the league in 2013, No. 1 in sacks. Smith went over all the rankings during a meeting. Bucs defenders heard him loud and clear. They think Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have freed them up to chase greatness.
Bucs safety Dashon Goldson said, “I know everybody always talks to us about the old Bucs, and the Tampa 2 coming back. What those guys did was great. We’ve got our own identity we’re trying to establish.”
“There’s a lot of excitement, because I know the possibilities are endless on this defense,” said cornerback Alterraun Verner, who steps in for Darrelle Revis, no small thing.
It would be no small leap. The Bucs defense rose to 17th in the league in Greg Schiano’s final season, but it hasn’t finished in the top half of its 32-team league since 2008. Even the good, No. 1 against the rush in 2012, came with the bad, nearly historically bad against the pass that same season. It’s a long way from there to the top.
“I think the scheme will help, definitely,” McCoy said. “And how we prepare. Really, just trusting the players. It doesn’t matter what offensive lineman gets up to the second level. They’re not quick enough to stop a Lavonte David. I’m going to get off the ball and disrupt things to where Mason Foster can flow downhill a lot faster in the rush. It depends on four guys to get the quarterback so it’s easier on our guys on the back end.”
It will take more than Pro Bowler McCoy and the astonishing David.
It will take a real edge rush, something the Bucs haven’t had in recent years. It’s up to newcomer Michael Johnson, and Adrian Clayborn, who moves from right to left end.
It will take even more from the improved Foster as he drops into coverage.
It will take takeaways and more takeaways.
It will take bigger, better seasons from safeties Goldson and Mark Barron. It will take coverage from corners Verner and Jonathan Banks.
It will take more than potential or expectations — or swagger.
“We ain’t got it yet,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to earn that. A team can just go out and have as much swag as you want, but if you’re out there getting dogged every game, it don’t matter.”
“Why not top 5?” Verner asked. “I don’t like to put statistical numbers on things, but I think it’s going to be a defense that when teams look at us on film, they’re going to be worried about us. You’re going to see a defense that’s going to be relentless and teams are going to fear us when they see us on film.”
There’s no film yet.
That starts Sunday.