EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — While four-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady has gotten the majority of the headlines, the play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense might be an even bigger reason the team is leading the NFC South.
Just look at the statistics as the Bucs (5-2) head into a Monday night game at MetLife Stadium against Joe Judge and his rebuilding New York Giants (1-6).
Coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit is the NFL’s third-ranked defense and the best against the run, yielding an average of 66 yards a game. It is second in total sacks with 25 and it has given up 20 or fewer points in five of seven games in an NFL season marked by plenty of scoring.
“There really are not many holes in this defense,” Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. “If you look at it, they’re, whatever, 28, 29, 30 stats that you look at with defenses each week. They’re in the top 10 in probably two-thirds of those. They’re in the top five in probably a third of them. They’re really good.”
The Bucs helped themselves in the offseason by placing the franchise tag on 2019 NFL sacks leader Shaquil Barrett and re-signing tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. They also found a gem, taking safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round of the draft.
What makes the defense even better is that Brady is finally settling in with his new team after two decades and six titles with the Patriots. After a slow start, the 43-year-old has thrown 15 touchdown passes against one interception over his past five games.
The combination of Brady and the defense has put a new light on Tampa Bay. Bruce Arians’ team has joined the Stanley Cup champion Lightning and World Series runner-up Rays as being considered an elite team.
Having been around football for decades, Arians understands the hype.
“I think you embrace it because you’re earning it,” he said. "But, it doesn’t mean [anything]. You’ve got to show up in practice — we’ve had really good weeks of practice and a really good week this week. I think it’s carrying over into ballgames. It just takes one [loss] and you’re back in the toilet.”
The Giants should not present many problems for the Bucs. New York is ranked 30th in the league with an offense that seemingly relies on the legs of quarterback Daniel Jones.
The Bucs also have to remember Jones ran for two touchdowns and threw two more in rallying for a win last year in the quarterback's first NFL start.
The Giants will enter this one without left guard Will Hernandez, who tested positive for COVID-19. He has started every game since being drafted in 2018.
It could have been worse. Three others starters could not practice on Thursday after close contact with Hernandez but they returned Friday.
Judge has not said who will replace him but the speculation is on rookie Shane Lemieux, a fifth-round draft pick out of Oregon.
Offensive line coach Marc Colombo said Lemieux is a tough, nasty player who played a little out of control after joining the team. He's calmed down lately.
“What I have seen the past few weeks is a guy that is being more patient, with everything,” Colombo said. “It is starting to translate in practice in one on ones and stuff like that.”
The game will mark the return of Pierre-Paul to MetLife Stadium. He was the Giants’ first-round draft pick in 2010 and played on their Super Bowl championship team in 2011. He was traded to Tampa Bay in the spring of 2018, and missed chances to face his old teammates the past two seasons because of injuries.
While Pierre-Paul is looking forward to the game, he wants the right result.
“We know it’s a Super Bowl team, but at the end of the day, it’s the work you put in,” said Pierre-Paul, who has a team-high 5½ sacks. “Any team can be a Super Bowl team, but when you look at the Bucs, the pieces that we have and the way it connects, people obviously think that we’re going to go to the Super Bowl. But, we’ve got to put in the work.”