When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mark Barron in the first round rather than going for Morris Claiborne, one thing was made abundantly clear: safeties were going to play a very important role in the new Tampa Bay defense. It wasn't long ago that selecting a safety in the top 10 of any draft was career suicide, but things have changed over the past decade. With the rise of the spread offense, defensive backs have become increasingly important. And none more than safeties, who have a pivotal role to play against tough hybrid players like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski: players who can function in both run-heavy and pass-heavy packages.
Many offenses these days are based on finding the right matchups for their players, and then exploiting them. The easiest way to do this is to have a hybrid player, force the defense to choose to defend him with run-heavy or pass-heavy personnel, and then go the other way. This has been a favorite tactic of the New Orleans Saints for the past years: they'd bring out a two tight-end package, and watch the defense. If the defense reacted with a pass-heavy personnel package, they could easily run the ball right at defensive backs who weren't used to stopping the run. If the defense went with run-heavy personnel, they split out the running back and tight end and threw to the resulting mismatches. The concept is simple, but it's very hard to stop if you don't have players who can match up on those hybrid players in both run and pass situations. Ronde Barber is one of those players for the Bucs, and Mark Barron can be the same kind of player. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that both of them are now safeties who should play pivotal roles in the Bucs' new defense.
One clue to this theory comes from a Pewter Report article from a while back, which ostensibly focused on Ahmad Black's role but contained a lot of interesting notes about the defense in general. Two notes stood out to me: the Bucs want to run a lot of dime defense (with six instead of four defensive backs), and the strong and free safety are no longer interchangeable. That's why Ahmad Black is now getting a lot of playing time: he's the backup free safety, which is Ronde Barber's job, but Barber will move back to a slot cornerback role in dime defense. That pushes the backup free safety, Ahmad Black, on the field. It's interesting that they chose Black for that role rather than Grimm, who is now the team's backup strong safety.
To understand the significance of this move, it's important to look at those hybrid players. Dime defenses are very powerful against the pass, and teams like the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers have, to an extent, built their defense around dime packages. But problems result when you face the run from a dime package: your defensive backs aren't used to stopping the run, and will often struggle. The Bucs hope to counter that problem with those hybrid players who can still contribute in run defense: Mark Barron, Ronde Barber, Ahmad Black, Cody Grimm, Lavonte David and even Aqib Talib and Eric Wright to a lesser extent have the versatility to eliminate that problem. It allows the Bucs to defend the pass without being outmatched against the run.
The key players there will be the safeties. With the difference between a strong and free safety, the Bucs will likely play a lot of single-high safety with Mark Barron creeping into the box to defend the run - one of his best assets. The Bucs can do that with Barron because he has the ability to play man coverage on tight ends and running backs, and the same goes for linebacker Lavonte David. That means that despite having eight men in the box, the Bucs still have the personnel to stop tight ends and other hybrid players from beating the defense down the field. Or at least, that's the theory.
The team has been awfully tight-lipped about the defense so far, but we've been able to gleam a few details through some coaches' remarks and off-hand notes in various articles. Hopefully, we'll able to see it in action successfully during the regular season.