Nobody cared about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense last season. The Bucs were a good defense -- sixth in DVOA -- and most people knew they were good. They were not quite elite, though, and the Bucs' offense at the time was not competent enough to capitalize on how well the defense was playing. Tampa Bay was a wholly unremarkable team despite having one of the league's better defenses at the time.
Tampa Bay's run defense, in particular, was outrageous last season. They finished the season second in adjusted line yards (3.14) and first in run defense DVOA (-34.7%). In fact, Tampa Bay's run defense DVOA was the best mark since the 2014 Detroit Lions, who finished at -35.1%. "Dominant" feels like it is underselling how overwhelming that unit was.
At least through seven weeks, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has carried over and built on that 2019 success in defending the run. Both their adjusted line yards and DVOA are slightly better to this point in 2020 than they finished at last season. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers are better in adjusted line yards and run defense DVOA than the Bucs right now. Tampa Bay's run defense is still every bit as monstrous as it was a year ago, if not better.
Run defense starts up front, of course. If a defensive line cannot hold or disrupt the line of scrimmage, their second- and third-level fill players will never be able to operate the way they are supposed to. Thankfully for Bowles, that is never a concern for Tampa Bay's front four/five. The Bucs' front always wins the line of scrimmage, and that is fundamental to their success.
Everything Tampa Bay's defensive linemen do is a concerted effort to eat up multiple blockers and buy time to give their All-World linebackers space to operate. They are a stunningly sound, smart group of linemen.
Here is a pre-snap screencap of one of Las Vegas' weak zone runs against Tampa Bay last Sunday. The Raiders are running this play to their left, so the right guard will want to help pass off the 3-technique (Ndamukong Suh, 93) before climbing to the second level to meet linebacker Devin White (45). However, this is under the assumption that the Bucs' nose tackle (Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 56) will work to the play-side A-gap immediately. That is not what Nunez-Roches does.
Instead, Nunez-Roches slides back into the back-side A-gap, then forces his way into the play-side. Nunez-Roches is effectively using his body to occupy the back-side A-gap while trying to bully the center into the play-side to help take away that A-gap too. Las Vegas' only good answer here is for the right guard (Gabe Jackson, 66) to help move Nunez-Roches down the line of scrimmage and open up a cutback.
Nunez-Roches does not allow Jackson to climb to White, though, and that gives White the freedom to hug the line of scrimmage and fall back to defend the cutback. Credit to the rest of the Bucs' front here as well, especially Shaq Barrett (58) on the edge, but fits like this work in large part because of how effectively players such as Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon (not in this clip) swallow up blocks to free up the linebackers.
Here is another good example of Nunez-Roches eating up space to help free up the linebackers. Similar to the last clip, Nunez-Roches makes a concerted effort to move over to the next offensive lineman and force him to waste an extra split-second before he can climb. That extra split is all Lavonte David (54) needed to be able to set himself up comfortably to take on the block from the guard and keep his outside shoulder free in the gap. It may seem like a minor play from Nunez-Roches, but even just a half-step can be the difference in making or breaking a run-blocking angle.
The linebackers themselves are exceptionally smart and athletic, too. David is a known product who has long been an All-Pro caliber linebacker stuck on unremarkable teams, but White, a second-year player out of LSU, is far and away the best "sidekick" with whom David has ever played. The way each of them understands their fits, stays square to the line of scrimmage, and triggers as soon as they see an opportunity is currently unmatched by any other linebacker pair in the league.
Below are both the wide and tight angles for one of Tampa Bay's stops against a one-back power concept from a two-high defensive shell. For starters, it is worth noting that Tampa Bay's linebackers are pushed aggressively over towards the strong side of the formation, which is something they have done a lot this year. Being pushed over to the strong side makes it easier for the linebackers to work together in making fits to that side of the formation. Both players have the speed to make up ground elsewhere if need be and Bowles trusts the rest of the defensive structure to hold.
On this play, the Bucs are executing a "box" fit against this one-back power play. A box fit, against this concept, requires the defensive end to set the edge and box the play back inside. It is then the strongside linebacker's job to hug tight to the 3-technique and wrong-arm the incoming pulling guard. Wrong-arming, in short, means the linebacker must use his outside shoulder to work inside of the linemen, essentially forcing the play to hit outside of the guard. Between the defensive end (Barrett) setting the edge and the strong linebacker (David) wrong-arming the puller, the Bucs create a lane that the running back almost has to run through. White and the nickel cornerback (Sean Murphy-Bunting, 23) are then required to fill into that manufactured rushing lane. They both do so quite well, especially White, thanks in part to his aggressive alignment right over the center.
Tampa Bay's linebackers have also done an outstanding job of "falling back" into gaps when necessary. Run fits, in a very broad sense, are not necessarily static, so a linebacker may need to be ready to handle multiple different gaps. A standard technique for doing so is "stack, track, fallback," which requires the linebacker to play right over the defensive lineman and read his leverage and play where they can not cover.
Here are two examples of the Bucs' linebackers falling back, the first by David and the second by White. In both instances, they track the running back while stacking themselves over the defensive lineman, effectively giving them a two-way go. The moment they realize the defensive lineman is fully working into the front-side gap and will force the play back, the linebacker falls back into the gap behind the defensive lineman. In other instances, the fit could play out such that the defensive lineman gets forced back into the back-side gap and the linebacker has to play over the top into the front-side.
Run defense, and defense in general, is all about structure and consistency. If a defense can mold a structure that works for them and have each individual consistently execute, while fully trusting their teammates to also do so, you end up with what the Bucs defensive front looks like right now. They are a fully cohesive unit that functions like a machine.
There is not any reason to believe this level of play up front will slow down, either. Nothing that the Bucs are doing is gimmicky or unsustainable. It is just good, sound football. If losing star defensive tackle Vita Vea, arguably the league's best run defender, to a broken leg in Week 5 was not enough to slow them down, it's hard to imagine what will. Bowles has these dudes playing.