The Buccaneers have traded for Darrelle Revis, giving up their 2013 first-round pick and a conditional 2014 third-round pick (if they cut Revis, it's a fourth-rounder). Giving Revis a $96 million contract with no guarantees, they've protected themselves from both injury and decline. But how will Revis impact the Bucs' defense? Can he get the Bucs to the playoffs?
How the Buccaneers play defense
Duddee wrote an absolutely outstanding article on the Buccaneers' defense this week, and there's no need for me to rehash the points he made. Duddee showed us how the Bucs' coaches failed to get a lot of their players to correctly execute the defense they called, especially in underneath coverage. There's a second problem with the way the Buccaneers play defense, though, and that was mentioned by Ronde Barber earlier this offseason.
You're basically playing with half a safety in the box -- kind of in kind of out -- and it's great in the run game, which obviously showed. But teams can definitely pick out their matchup, and if you don't win on the outside it looks pretty bad."
Keep that in mind as we go through this article. The Bucs want to have one of their safeties impact the run game and the pass game in the box. They routinely walk Mark Barron up to the line of scrimmage, and it helped them produce arguably the best run defense in the NFL last season. Barron's box responsibilities aren't limited to run defense, though, as he's used in coverage on tight ends and as a blitzer routinely. That gives you problems on the back end, though.
Here's a typical play for the Buccaneers from their week two game against the New York Giants last season.
A few key things to notice, here. First, the Buccaneer are playing Cover 1 and they're going to be blitzing a whole bunch of players, all of them stacked around the line. Note that Mark Barron is walking up to the line of scrimmage, while Ahmad Black is the single deep safety shaded to the side of the field with two receivers. Hakeem Nicks is singled up on Aqib Talib on the bottom.
With this configuration, there's no way any free safety can impact the Nicks-Talib matchup -- he simply can't get there in time. Even Ed Reed in his prime would have had issues preventing a big play if the cornerback gets beat there. And yet, this kind of play is key for any defense that relies on blitzes. They want to force the receivers to beat their cornerbacks to make any plays. One problem the Bucs had last year: their cornerbacks got beat. And when your cornerback gets beat, your safety can't impact the play. That's exactly what happened on the previous play.
This is the moment Hakeem Nicks catches the ball. Notice that Talib is trailing, and Ahmad Black isn't even in position to make the tackle, let alone a play on the ball. The result here is a 55-yard reception, though Black did manage to prevent a touchdown. It was easy to find and exploit these matchups if you played the Buccaneers last season.
The Buccaneers cannot play this kind of coverage if they don't have a cornerback on the outside taking away that isolated receiver. And that's where Revis comes in.
Darrelle Revis' impact on coverage
Darrelle Revis changes everything about your defense. The Buccaneers wanted to play with a safety in the box last season. They wanted to have one deep safety and force the opponent to beat their cornerbacks while they blitzed relentlessly. Unfortunately, they simply couldn't do that as it became apparent they didn't have the talent on the outside to execute that kind of defense properly. That didn't stop them from trying.
Darrelle Revis would allow the Buccaneers to go back to that. He would allow the Bucs to have a safety cheat to one side of the field, while Revis covered the other side. It would allow them to move Barron back into the box in run defense, to cover tight ends and as a blitzer. How do I know that? Because that's exactly what the New York Jets did with Darrelle Revis.
I went through two 2011 New York Jets games: their week 7 contest against the San Diego Chargers, and their week 16 game against the New York Giants. Darrelle Revis shaped their entire defense in both games, and the effects were palpable. Revis allowed just 2 catches for 35 yards against Philip Rivers and Eli Manning, while covering Vincent Jackson, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. He shadowed Jackson throughout the first game, while he moved around more and covered different receivers against the New York Giants.
Revis allowed the Jets to be very, very aggressive. In all, I counted just eight snaps of Cover 2 over both games on passing plays, ignoring a few snaps of prevent defense when the Chargers game was out of hand (I didn't tally runs). They did that with Jim Leonhard, Eric Smith and Brodney Pool (against the Giants) at safety, which certainly limited their effectiveness. None of those safeties are what you would call good and you could tell. Even with safeties shaded to the other side of the field, the Jets frequently gave up passes when they did not need to. A 99-yard Victor Cruz touchdown was most glaring, as the safeties simply couldn't get close to him.
But Revis did do his job, and he gave the Jets a ridiculous amount of freedom in designing coverage and blitzes. The Jets beat the Chargers handily, but lost to the Giants. In part because the rest of the Jets' secondary appeared to be made of fail and in part because Mark Sanchez is an awful quarterback. Still, we can look to those games and see some of the schematic blueprint of what the Bucs want to do on defense. I picked out two screenshots from the Chargers game.
The red lines represent coverage, while the black lines represent players rushing the passer. With Revis covering Jackson on the bottom with no safety help, the single deep safety needs to provide help on just over half the field, and the Jets are free to send a whopping six blitzers. Every receiver is covered man-to-man, but the safety's available to help Cromartie over the top, so he can play to his safety help. The same is true for everyone else. The play almost works, too, except one of the two players on the edge of the box blows his assignment, leaving Antonio Gates wide open in the middle of the field. Oops.
That's not all that interesting, though. The design of the play is much more interesting. Because Revis can handle Vincent Jackson on his own (not a feat many defensive backs can replicate, mind you), the Jets are free to play a variation of Cover 1 where the safety needs to cover just half the field. This gives them the freedom to overload the box. They have eight potential blitzers around the line of scrimmage, and they could use those in any combination.
This time Darrelle Revis is to the top, again covering Vincent Jackson. Once again they leave him alone with no safety help, while the safety cheats to the other side of the field to help Cromartie and the underneath coverage. The Jets once again stack the box with eight players, and they could send any combination of those eight players. They opt for a conventional four-man rush, but the threat of multiple pass-rushers forces the Chargers to account for them and limits the. The result is that they end up with six blockers against four pass-rushers -- but those four pass-rushers each have a one-on-one matchup.
So what about pass-rush?
Can you name the Jets' top pass-rusher during the 2009 season, when they had one of the best pass defenses of all time? That was Calvin Pace, who notched just eight sacks. The Jets were ranked 14th in adjusted sack rate that season, but they did that through coverage and blitzes, not by having superior pass rushers.
In 2010, they ranked 10th in adjusted sack rate. Their top pass rusher was Bryan Thomas, who had six sacks. In 2011, they ranked 12th in adjusted sack rate. Their top pass rusher? Massive bust Aaron Maybin, who notched six sacks mostly by just being fast and unblocked due to the creative (and successful) blitzes sent by Rex Ryan and company.
The impact is obvious in another way, too.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers actually have more talented pass rushers than the Jets did at any point the past four seasons. They have 2011 first-round pick Adrian Clayborn returning from injury, and 2011 second-rounder Da'Quan Bowers finally healthy. Bowers looked like an emerging stud late last season, and has as much talent as almost any pass-rusher in the NFL. Add to that one of the best young defensive tackles in the NFL in Gerald McCoy, and you have a quality group of defensive linemen -- with not a lot of depth behind them.
Changing the entire defense
Darrelle Revis helps your entire defense. They allow you to tilt coverage the other way and bring a safety into the box without compromising your coverage elsewhere. That, in turn, helps your run defense, but also helps you disguise your intentions before the snap. It allows you to be more creative with blitzes, while alleviating the pressure on every other coverage player by providing more safety help.
That's essential for the Buccaneers, who gave up more passing yards than any other team in the NFL last season. They lost several close games when they couldn't stop quarterbacks from marching down the field. Defensive stops in one-score games against the Giants, Redskins, Saints, Panthers and Eagles would have made the Buccaneers a playoff team. Would a healthy Revis have guaranteed those stops? I don't know that -- but I do know he would have made stopping opposing quarterbacks a lot easier.
Revis' impact can't be replicated by any other cornerback. Yes, the Buccaneers could have kept their draft picks, and they could have paid Sean Smith and Keenan Lewis or some other cornerbacks to come to Tampa. But none of them can do what Revis does, which is take a top receiver out of the game. And without that ability, you can't tilt coverage the other way, walking your safety down into the box becomes much more risky and you lose a lot of schematic flexibility. That's why trading for Revis makes sense, and why claiming that the Bucs could have found cornerbacks elsewhere misses the point: none of those cornerbacks could facilitate that style of defense.
Of course, there's one issue with all of this: the Bucs kind of suck at blitzing, as Steve White is fond of pointing out. It's not just the execution of the blitzes, though that needs work, but the design of those blitzes. I can't recall the last time the Bucs managed to get a free rusher at a quarterback, although I'm sure it happened. That's an issue not even Darrelle Revis can fix.