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Bucs hope familiarity improves 2015 defense

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TAMPA, Fla. — Playing excellent defense is usually a staple for Lovie Smith-coached teams. So as surprising as the 2-14 record was last season, it was most shocking that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled on that side of the ball.

The Bucs finished 25th overall in total defense (368.9 yards) and points (25.6 per game) in 2014. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier didn’t get much help in the draft. LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander is the only defensive player selected by the Bucs in the past two years.

As the Bucs went through the first day of this week’s organized team activities Tuesday, Frazier looked forward to significant improvement on defense in 2015. A year ago, the Bucs players were learning the Tampa 2 system. But perhaps just as important, the coaches were learning about their new players.

“I think it is equally beneficial,” Frazier said. “You have a better feel for the players and what they can do. What their strengths and weaknesses are. This time of year, a year ago, everything you’d seen was on tape in another system. You were trying to project how they would fit into the system we were going to introduce.

“Now, we have actually seen Lavonte David, Danny Lansanah and Gerald McCoy play and function in our defense. We kind of know what their strengths and weaknesses are within what we do so we can better utilize their gifts, their talents and have a better understanding of what they are best at doing. Sometimes that only happens through experience. That experience should help me, should help our defensive coaches and our players as well.”

The Bucs did show some signs of improvement in 2014. During the last 10 weeks, they allowed 20.6 points per game despite missing a few key players like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and David for a few games.

After missing on free agent defensive end Michael Johnson and cutting their losses, the Bucs’ free agent focus was on players who have proved to be successful in the Tampa 2 under Smith or Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli

Cowboys middle linebacker Bruce Carter might have been the most important addition. He led all players at his position with five interceptions last season. The Bucs also signed Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton and Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte, who each played for Smith in Chicago.

“We think Bruce has a chance to really come in and provide a quality of leadership for us,” Frazier said. “He’s played in this system before. He has had some success both at the inside backer position as well as the outside. We think Bruce can really give us something, especially his athletic ability. He’s a guy who has very good speed. He’s a smart football player.

“The key for him, like a lot of guys, is staying on the field. He has had the injury bug a little bit. We need him to stay healthy, but when he has stayed healthy, he has played the Mike position very well. His leadership, athletic ability and smarts should help our defense.”

The Bucs made a big change during the middle of the season, trading safety Mark Barron to the St. Louis Rams and inserting Brandon McDougald in his place. Defensive end Jacquies Smith started the final eight games and finished with 6 1/2 sacks. And the Bucs traded for Lions defensive end George Johnson.

“When you look at those last 10 games of the season and you see that we finished in the top five in almost every category group, including points, that’s what gets you excited,” Frazier said. “There are some things we can build on. We are expecting the guys that are coming back to really improve. So many of them, they were so young a year ago and young in the system. We have high hopes.

“Now the key for us is seeing Gerald have another great season, seeing Henry Melton really mesh and become the Henry that was an All-Pro a few years ago, and finding that right end. In our league, if you can’t rush with four and you have to rely on pressure all the time, that creates some problems for your team. We still have some things that we need to see happen and we are a long ways from that.”

As for why the Bucs have mostly ignored the defense in the draft?

“I’m sure (general manager) Jason (Licht) and Coach (Lovie Smith) are talking about that. They have a plan. They have explained that plan to me and I’m on board with it,” he said. “Depth can be an issue in our league. You have to be able to develop some players. We are going to work hard with the waiver wire and some of the things we plan on doing to ensure that we have good depth and also to create competition for the starting positions.”

The Bucs’ OTAs this week go through Thursday.


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