Bucs vs. Panthers: Forgive Me, Bucs Fans, for I Have Grinned

Forgive me, Bucs fans.

Forgive me for dwelling on the past. For bringing up the 2011-12 season once again. For dragging Raheem's name back into the conversation, and back through the mud.

Forgive me this one time, in this one column, for recalling a season dead and gone.

Because this, I believe, will be the last time I have to bring up the horror that was last season. The Bucs are a changed team.

Now, before you think I'm overconfident, let me explain. I don't believe that the Bucs are headed straight for the Super Bowl. I understand that the team will struggle to have a winning season, and that the Panthers were not mighty foes compared to the ones the Bucs are set to face the rest of the season -- next week's game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants is proof of this.

But this week the Bucs have proved, in ways both spectacular and mundane, that they are no longer a product of a smiling, laid-back players' coach. This isn't a team that has hip-hop music blaring through the speakers during practice. This isn't a team that swears loyalty to their coach in the press, while slacking off on the field.

This is Schiano's team.

And forgive me for my optimism, but I can't wait to see what the season holds.

Because compared to last year's Bucs, this team is looking like, like, well, an NFL team.

Just a few examples of the early turnaround:

The Run Defense: Last year, the Bucs were dead last in the league in stopping the run. This week, the Bucs held the (admittedly Jonathan Stewart-less) Panthers to 10 rushing yards. That's correct, the Buc defense allowed only 10 rushing yards for the entire game. That figure ties the lowest number of rushing yards the Bucs have ever allowed. Last year, quarterback Cam Newton averaged 44 rushing yards per game. In this game he had 4 yards on 5 carries. Now, this is not to say that the Bucs should expect similar results against teams with a healthy running back corps, but the defense's performance certainly made a statement.

The Discipline and Fundamentals: Last year, the Bucs had 148 penalties (which works out to roughly 9 per game) for 1,027 yards. This week, the Bucs had only four penalties for 35 yards, the first coming in the second half. And none of these included a Jeremy Trueblood false start penalty. But beyond the lack of penalties, it was clear that the Bucs were practicing sound fundamentals. Defenders swarmed to make tackles, and they did not give up until the play was whistled dead. Josh Freeman had, the announcers insisted over and over, cleaned up his pocket stance. Even on special teams, Aquib Talib came through for the first blocked punt of his football career. Each player understood what was expected of him, and each took pains to follow through with these expectations.

The Rookies: Last year, well, Mark Barron, Doug Martin, and Lavonte David were playing college ball. (Can't fault Team Raheem for that one.) But this week, all three came out and played impressively in their first professional game. The Bucs seem committed to running the ball, and they clearly think Martin is the guy who is going to establish the run. LaGarrette Blount hurdled another opponent in this game, but he hasn't cleared the greatest hurdle of all -- proving himself to be a lead runner. Martin, on the other hand, gained 95 yards on the ground in his debut performance, and was an asset in the passing game as well. On the defense, Barron has lived up so far to his first-round pick status. Though he was beat by Panthers' star receiver Steve Smith once, Barron did not let that happen again. And the hits he laid on opponents? No need to mic up this guy, those hits were powerful and loud. As for rookie linebacker David, he led the team with six tackles, all while being in charge of calling plays on defense.

The Turnovers: Last year, the Bucs led the league in turnovers, giving up the ball 40 times. Josh Freeman led NFL quarterbacks with 27 turnovers, including 5 fumbles lost. This week, the Bucs did not give up the ball once. Freeman was not flashy -- he never aired out the ball, instead presiding over a run-and short yard-focused offense -- but he managed the team, and he kept the ball safe. He did not need to force throws to diva players. He played a solid, clean game. On the other side of the ball, superstar cornerback-turned-safety Ronde Barber, in his 200th consecutive start, had an interception, as did safety Ahmad Black.

Cross-published at Chicks in the Huddle.