TAMPA — As football drills go, the one the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put their defense through at the start of every practice is about as rudimentary as they come.
A coach points to a spot on the field a few yards from an imaginary line of scrimmage. When he blows his whistle to signify the snap of the ball, all 11 players break from their positions and run as hard as they can to that spot.
Designed to get players accustomed to swarming after a ball carrier, the exercise is called the hustle drill. Despite the elementary nature, it continues to have a great impact the Bucs defense.
After finishing the 2012 season ranked first in the NFL against the run, the Bucs are again among the league’s best — ranked fifth in that discipline. And the hustle drill is one of the keys to their success.
“We have a great scheme here because if someone makes a mistake, we have someone else coming right behind them, swarming to the ball,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “And that’s how you keep teams from running the ball on you.”
The Bucs, who allow 95.8 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry, were at their swarming best in Monday night’s 22-19 victory against the Dolphins.
They limited Miami to only 2 yards rushing, a Tampa Bay franchise record for the fewest rushing yards allowed and the fewest ever by the Dolphins in a single game. It was the fewest rushing yards any team has allowed since Washington held Dallas to 1 yard on Dec. 30, 2007.
A few solo tackles, such as the one linebacker Lavonte David made when he dropped running back Daniel Thomas in the end zone for a safety, contributed to the effort. For the most part, though, it was the Bucs’ tendency to swarm and gang tackle opposing runners that made them so successful.
“It’s really a concept that the coaches have come up with,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “And the thinking is, if everybody does their part, then we’re going to have a good chance to stop the run.
“We obviously did it at a high level (against the Dolphins). We had guys setting the edge and chasing the ball. Everybody was just doing their job and swarming, and that’s all there is to it.’’
Well, that’s not all there is to it.
A team has to have the right personnel to effectively employ the attacking scheme the Bucs use. As Falcons coach Mike Smith points out, the Bucs have clearly found the right players.
“They’re very athletic, and the scheme they run fits that athleticism very well,” said Smith, whose team is 2-7 and has lost three straight entering Sunday’s game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
“They’re not the biggest guys you’re going to face, but they are going to be the quickest. For example, they don’t necessarily have the 320-pound space eaters that some defenses have. But they have Gerald McCoy and (defensive end) Adrian Clayborn and they’re both very athletic, and that sets up well for the style they play.”
Tampa Bay has several linebackers, Smith said, that run and play off that movement up front. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron also play well close to the line of scrimmage.
“That makes it very difficult to run the ball against them,’’ Smith said.
Smith knows that from experience.
In three games against Bucs coach Greg Schiano’s defense, the Falcons have run 58 times for 162 yards, a 2.8-yard average per carry. Included in that are the 18 rushing yards the Falcons gained in the first meeting this season, a 31-23 victory for the Falcons in Atlanta on Oct. 20.
“Yeah, Lavonte plays downhill and I play downhill and we play off each other,” Foster said. “And then you’ve got Gerald up there making things happen and causing havoc, so it is all schemed up nice for what we do.”
“But we have to continue to play hard like that because after what we did on Monday, everybody is going to see that we have a lot of playmakers. So, we’re definitely going to need to turn it up a notch now.’’
They were probably going to have to turn it up a notch, anyway. Though he has yet to run at the level expected of him, running back Steven Jackson is back in the Falcons’ lineup after missing the first meeting with an injury. And that presents the Bucs’ defense with a sizeable challenge.
“He’s still very physical, a tough running back to get down on the ground,” Schiano said. “So, between him and (running back Jacquizz) Rodgers, they have some weapons and they’re getting healthy now.
“They went through a stretch these last three games where they didn’t have all their weapons. But now, with these guys coming back, we’re going to get their real-deal offense and we’ve got to be prepared for that.’’
That’s what practice and hustle drills are for.