Analyzing the Buccaneers' Defense Part 2: The Pass

J. Meric

Analyzing the Defense Part 2: The Pass

The Buccaneers' pass defense was simply horrible last season. They gave up a whopping average of 297.4 passing yards per game. Offenses, at will, were able to generate huge passes down the field and complete drives in a set of three downs. Fans watched the Buccaneers blow late game leads on the regular. The abysmal play by the secondary has led to a huge contract for Dashon Goldson and -the worst thing since the time of Brett Farve re-re-re-retiring- the Revis watch. Of course, upgrading personnel will bring improvements, but what about the play calling? Once again, we must start at the basics.

If you missed my analysis of the run defense, view it here.

Part 3 on the pass rush and pass defense statistics (play calling) is coming soon.

The Basics

Every pass coverage has its own strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect coverage just as there is no useless coverage. The top pass defenses in the NFL all run different schemes: some play a lot of zone (Bears), some play a lot of man (Jets), some zone-blitz the offense into submission (Steelers), and some rely on their pass rush (Broncos). There isn't one end-all-be-all system to revert to in the NFL; everyone gets it done in their own fashion. The key is for a defense to be very good at a handful of concepts and mitigate risk through smart situational play calling.

The Coverages

Every pass coverage is based off of one, or multiple, of the five generic coverages: Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 4. The number after "cover" refers to the amount of deep zones being played by the secondary. Cover 0 and 1 are man coverages while cover 2, 3, and 4 are zone coverages.

There are two primary forms of man coverage: tight/on/press man and off/catch man. Press man is most often used by the Buccaneers. The corners starts in a low, balanced stance on the line of scrimmage and physically obstruct the receiver from releasing off the line of scrimmage. The key to press man isn't the collision, but that the defender stays on balance and releases his hips with the receiver so that he can effectively run with him. In off man, the defender starts around 7-10 yards off of the receiver. The defender will attack downhill on any route breaking between 3-5 steps and attempt to make a play on the ball. If the receiver does not stem his route before 5 steps, the receiver will be breaking what is called the "cushion." The cushion is an imaginary line 3-5 yards from the defender that signifies the moment when the defender needs to begin opening his hips to start running with the receiver. If the defender flips his hips too late, the receiver will blow right by him.

The overall key to playing any man coverage is for the defender to be what is called "in-phase." A defender is in-phase when he is on the inside hip of the receiver and slightly ahead of him (not getting beat deep). From this position, the defender denies any immediate inside breaking routes with his body, is not getting beat over the top, and is in a position to mirror every move by the receiver. The difference between the two types of man coverage is that the defender is in-phase within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage in press man compared to 10 yards in off man.

Here are good examples by Darelle Revis. The beginning of the video shows press and then at 0:25 shows two good examples of off man.

Zone coverage is conceptually more complex than man. At its most basic form, zone coverage can be as simple as telling each defender he is responsible for a 5 by 5 chunk of turf and having him defend any receiver who comes inside of it. This is referred to as landmark or spot dropped zone. It is called this because each defender is given a landmark on the field and told to defend it on the snap. The thought process behind this defense is that windows will be created between each zone that are hard for the quarterback to hit. There is no need to chase a receiver if he leaves one defender's zone because he will just end up in another zone. The Buccaneers play this type of zone. However, this isn't a perfect concept. Offenses beat these types of zones by sending two or more receivers into a single zone and creating what are called horizontal and vertical "stretches."

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Here is an example of a vertical stretch called curl-flat. The outside receiver runs a curl behind the flat defender while the slot receiver runs an out route right in front of his face. Who does the defender cover? If he plays up into the out route the curl is wide open and vice-versa. Defenses have evolved to combat this flooding of zones by doing what is called pattern reading or pattern matching.

From the words of Nick Saban (provided by Brophy: read a lot more about this great subject here)

"We got to the point where, this is the reason that we do this, when everybody started going spread we couldn't play 3 deep zone. This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us , four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole' route from 2x2. So we got to where we could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call "Country Cover 3" -drop to your spot, reroute the seams, break on the ball. Well, when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don't work."

Saban goes on to talk about the pattern reading system he helped develop in Cleveland. Essentially, pattern reading is the act of defenders matching, covering specific receivers man to man, based on their releases and routes post snap. Defenders are given complex progressions of reads that tell them who to cover based off of what their zones are and what the receivers do. This is a hard concept to fully grasp, but it essentially bridges the gap between defenders dropping back into zones and defenders chasing the man in front of them while retaining benefits of both. The cons to this type of zone is that it is difficult to master, defenders don't know who or where they are covering pre-snap, and less interceptions are created due to eyes not being on the quarterback.

Examples of this type of zone coverage are not going to be provided in this article due to the amount of time it would take to explain and the fact that the Bucs don't even do it. However, it is still a very powerful tool used by many teams in the NFL- including the Super Bowl contending 49ers. Video of Saban explaining it can be found here.

Cover 0

Cover 0 is a pressure heavy coverage. There are zero deep safeties, the defense is sending at least 6, and the secondary is playing man across with no help. This is a coverage that is seen less and less as time goes on. The lack of help to any defender means if anyone gets beat its a touchdown. For most teams, this blitz has been replaced by zone-blitzes because of the reduced amount of risk while still retaining 6 rushers. If a team still has it in their book, it is a knee jerk reaction by a defensive coordinator when he realizes he can't stop the opposing offense. However, some teams can still thrive off of this kind of coverage because of the skilled players they posses in their secondary.

Scanning through a few games, I actually couldn't find an example of the Bucs running this coverage so I made it up.

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Cover 1

Cover 1 is possibly the most balanced coverage in football. There is a free safety covering the deep center of the field, the strong safety is walked into the box, and the defense is playing man across. There are two main variations of cover 1: the defense can rush 4 and use the extra defender in the box to play a short zone while the others play man, or blitz 5 and have all the short defenders play man. The Buccaneers commonly do both. Like cover 0, cover 1 can be used to bring additional pressure, however, the addition of the deep free safety helps reduce the risk of big plays.

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Here, the Bucs are running a slightly more advanced version of cover 1. They are sending both Barron and a linebacker on a blitz, but only sending 5 in total. Bennett, instead of immediately rushing the quarterback, is going to read the running back. He will rush the quarterback if the running back stays in to block the blitz and the defense will end up sending 6 to counter the increased protection. However, he will cover the running back if he flares out.

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Seeing post snap, the Bucs have failed to achieve pressure with 5 rushers. However, they are also in a great position to cover all of the receivers. If this was cover 0, Rivers would be taking a shot down the middle of the field and would probably be completing the pass. The equalizer here is that Ronde takes away the deep pass down the middle, and that allows the inside defenders to concentrate more on short and outside routes by the tight end and slot receiver. They know their help is over the top.

Cover 2

Most fans should be familiar with this coverage. Cover 2 is a zone coverage with two safeties each play a deep half of the field, five defenders playing underneath zones, and four lineman rushing the quarterback. There are many strengths to this zone, but are a few are that it allows the short defenders to press, it doesn't rely on the corners to cover deep passes, and is one of the stronger coverages against the deep pass. The weaknesses are the reliance of pressure by only the front 4, the lack of interior run support, and the massive gap in coverage between the safeties.

The Buccaneers, with Tony Dungy, made famous the alteration of cover 2- the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 takes the middle linebacker in cover 2 and runs him deep up the middle of the field upon snap of the ball. He fills the gap between the safeties left by cover 2 and helps defend against deep routes up the middle by a tight end or slot receiver. This alteration does have its own weakness though- the vacating middle linebacker weakens the underneath coverage and allows for easy dump off passes over the middle.

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Here against Atlanta, Barber and Barron are playing deep halves while Foster will help defend the middle of the field.

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After the snap, both corners and outside linebackers are playing the underneath routes by their respective receivers while the safeties are playing their deep routes. Ryan is forced to hold onto the ball as nothing deep opens up. The play ends with a dump off pass to a leaking out back for almost 10 yards. The Tampa 2 is still one of the Buccaneers favorite coverages.

Cover 3

Cover 3, like Cover 1, has a safety playing the deep middle of the field and another safety walked up into the box. To get to the 3 deep defenders (Cover "3") the two boundary corners also play deep zones along the sidelines; each deep defender has 1/3 of the field. The remaining 4 underneath defenders each play short zones. The pros of this coverage is that it creates an 8 man box, has a closed middle of field (the free safety), and allows for a lot of versatility with zone blitzes. The cons of the coverage is that it leaves corners 1 on 1 on the outside, has very weak coverage in the seams (above the outside linebackers and below the FS), and has delayed coverage in the flats due to the vacating corners. The Bucs rarely run this coverage and are best suited not to.

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Here against the Falcons, Barron is going to pre-snap rotate into the box as Barber begins to cheat into the middle of the field. The corners are going to run with the receivers 1 on 1 down the sideline.

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The easiest way to tell this coverage isn't Cover 1 is the technique by the corners and the coverage by the underneath defenders. The receivers have stemmed inside onto the numbers and thus the corners are playing outside of them due to their zone responsibilities along the sideline. The underneath coverage is getting to their landmarks instead of covering men; this is most obviously viewed through #57, Hayward, who is sprinting to get underneath the receiver.

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Further along, the ball has been thrown deep down the sideline and is caught for an 80 yard touchdown. Yes, it is that play. Barber is in no position to play the ball because of his middle of field responsibilities. If he were to cheat towards one receiver and the other posted into the middle of the field it would be wide open. In Cover 1, where every receiver is covered by a man, Barber can take more risks and theoretically provide more help to the sidelines because if a receiver were to post into the middle there would still be a man on him. This reliance of the corners to be able to Cover 1 on 1 and lack of help from the free safety make Cover 3 a no-no coverage for the Bucs.

Cover 4

Cover 4 is run out of the same two high safety shell as Cover 2. Hence, each can be disguised as each other and are both good compliments to each other. Like Cover 3, Cover 4 has both boundary corners playing deep zones to create 4 deep players. However, their responsibilities are cut down. On paper, each deep defender is given 1/4 of the deep field to cover, but it is actually played slightly different.

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As shown, each deep player has a receiver lined up in front of them; the corners have a receiver immediately in front of them and the safeties are lined over the slot receivers. Each player is responsible for the deep route of the receiver they are lined over- if the slot receiver goes deep the safety is responsible for him. However, if the slot receiver runs a short route the safety will then give help to the corner next to him on a deep route. This help system also applies if the corner's receiver stays short and the slot receiver runs deep.

The next visible part of this coverage is the lack of underneath defenders. The three short defenders are given a lot of ground to cover and are in turn vulnerable to a combination of quick routes. To make up for this, some teams will allow their safeties to play very aggressive. The two most popular teams that do this are the Ravens and Steelers with, guess who, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.

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After the snap, both outside receivers stay short and the slot receivers run deep. This allows both corners to provide help to the safeties on deep routes. On the top of the image, the linebacker runs with the slot receiver up the seam which could be an on-field call or adjustment- so don't mind that.

The outside receivers are wide open for short routes and I would argue that this is due to a lack of urgency by the underneath coverage. No matter the zone, this sight of very loose underneath coverage is a common theme.

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The play ends with Rivers checking down the ball for an incompletion.

Applying it to the Buccaneers

Under Schiano, the Buccaneers have shown a clear direction with their play calling: they are going to blitz and play Cover 1 when they want pressure, they are going to play tampa 2 when they want to sit back and play zone, and the rest of the time they are going to play some form of man. Only very occasionally do the Bucs sprinkle in other zones. They might run Cover 4 or Cover 6 (Cover 4 to one side of the field and Cover 2 to the other) two or three times a game.

Does this selection of play calling equal the last ranked pass defense in the league? No. The Buccaneers actually have a pretty good group of personnel to warrant this play calling. First, we have the athletes to play Cover 1: David and Barron match up well on tight ends, Foster isn't a liability on backs, and it doesn't require game-changers at corner. Yes, great players on the outside helps, but it can surprise how our corners held up in man. Second, Cover 2 is also logical because of the strength at safety, the lack of strength at corner, and the ability of the front 7 to hold up against the run. The Bucs aren't going to run Cover 0 anytime soon and Cover 3 is a disaster waiting to happen.

So why the bad defense?

The Bad and the Ugly

Having a bad pass defense can be partly attributed to play calling. However, having the worst pass defense is directly attributed to how well the coverage called is actually being played. This can be boiled down to either bad coaching, bad talent, or lack of effort.

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Here against the Falcons, the Bucs are going to play Cover 1. Two linebackers are blitzing while the defensive end will cover one of the running backs. This is a perfectly fine play call for the situation. It is first down, the Bucs are bringing extra men into the box to stop the run, and the ball is past midfield which encourages blitzing.

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After the snap, the coverage just looks bad. First, the underneath coverage is all caught looking for their men blocking and are left doing nothing. In this situation, they should be dropping deeper into coverage to provide help to others. Second, the leverage by the corners does not match the play by the safety. Barber is playing so deep because he is looking for the fade over the top. However, the corners are playing outside leverage looking for Ronde to provide help on post routes. The end result of these facts leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the field- something no pass defense ever wants.

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Throw, catch, 15 easy yards. This play had less to do with lack of talent or play calling but more with technique- something that comes from coaching.

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This is the view from the pocket. The blitz was effective. It got a man onto the quarterback in a relatively quick manner. Ryan was actually forced to throw the ball before the receiver broke open. Ryan would have been forced to hold this ball for a sack if the underneath coverage, or Ronde, filled the void in the middle of the field.

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Again against the Falcons, the Bucs are playing Tampa 2. This time, on the other hand, they are going to show blitz and then only rush two and drop nine men into coverage. This should leave little holes in the secondary right?

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Watch the yellow hole as it only grows bigger.

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The underneath defenders are all covering the same 2 yards of turf. Yellow hole growing.

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To hell with it. Just give them the completion. Four underneath defenders are suddenly attacking a running back who leaks out of the backfield for no reason. Three deep defenders are playing one deep receiver. No matter that the defense dropped nine into coverage- this is inexcusable with seven.

Conclusion

When the Bucs play zone coverage there seems to be a huge disconnect with what is whose responsibility. Once again, nothing about athleticism, mismatches, or play calling. Just really bad coaching. When the Bucs end up playing zone, which 90% of the time is Cover 2, there are constantly massive holes. It's a coin toss to whether a hole will open up down the field for an easy 20 yard completion or there's a dump off pass that turns into an easy 10 yard gain. The days of bend but don't break are dying. All the top pass defenses make offenses fight for every completion- the Bucs hand it on a silver platter and play damage control.

Man coverage is a slightly different story. Blown coverages and wide open receivers don't happen as often, but that is expected. However, the Cover 1 cutup, two plays earlier in the article, provides a great example of the massive lack of coaching that results in a disconnect between players on defense. The corners expect help in certain areas but end up not getting it which leaves receivers open for easy completions. Don't get me wrong, the Buccaneers didn't play great man coverage. They just played it less worse than zone.

The most concerning part about the Buccaneer's pass defense is the amount of big plays given up. The pass defense gave up 69 plays of 20 yards or more and 11 plays of 40 yards or more. Those numbers without context might not be very alarming. How about a division rival that many of us would argue has less talent? The Panthers gave up 38 plays of 20 yards or more and 5 plays of 40 yards or more. These numbers are mind boggling.

So who is at fault? Ex-secondary coach Ron Cooper may be the first place to point the finger. At LSU, he produced first round draft picks at corner left and right, but what were they known for? Playing great man coverage. He brought a tiny portion of that to Tampa. However, he also brought some god awful zone coverage. At first glance, the firing of Cooper looked like Schiano was making him a scapegoat to cover his own. At second glance, Cooper might have just been that poor at coaching players in the pros. There is a huge difference between a passing offense in the SEC and the NFL. He might not have been able to make the transition.

Through all of this, we have much to look forward to. First, the holes in our coverage can't get any bigger. When you're at the bottom there is only going up. Second, a new secondary coach might create a big change both mentally and technique wise. We might be able to expect better play and a fresh head from the players. Third, our run defense isn't effecting our pass defense. There is no "selling out" to stop the run. The Bucs just play really really bad coverage. Last, all of those young players are getting older. The defensive system isn't going to change much. Like hell Schiano is. More time in the system should produce better results for those rookies.

Further analysis on the play calling portion of the pass defense will be provided in part 3 where we will look at a bunch of statistics that you won't find anywhere else. Also, we will look at the pass rush and answer the looming questions on stunts.

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