Buccaneers Pass Defense: Stopping the Falcons should be the template

Kevin C. Cox

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL last season, but a week 17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons should give us some hope that the coaching staff understands what went wrong. We break down a few plays and statistics to show you how the Bucs can have success next season.

The week 17 game against the Atlanta Falcons is seen as the blueprint for the Buccaneers moving forward. It is the game that ended a miserable five game skid and raised the hopes of many fans and players for the next season. Over the previous five games, the defense gave up an average of 29.4 points. The entire defense's play during those games was atrocious and big play after big play was racked up for embarrassing losses. In the week 17 game, the defense managed to hold the Falcons to a meager 17 points - the lowest total the Falcons had scored all season (including the playoffs).

This drastic change in defensive play can be directly traced to the phenomenal play by the pass defense, adjustments in play calling, and increased continuity in the pass rush. The one stat that explains this win is the longest reception of the game for the Falcons, a 28 yard screen pass to Julio Jones. There were no completed bombs, wide open seams, or busted coverages - the pass defense finally came together.

First Half Breakdown

We will look at 3 out of the 4 attempted deep passes in the first half.

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It is a 3rd and 8 halfway through the second quarter. The Falcons have spread the field in an explosive formation with three wide receivers, Gonzalez, and a single back. The Bucs are playing Cover 1 (man with a deep safety) with David and Barron blitzing. The focus of this play is on Harry Douglas being covered by Anthony Gaitor in the slot and Ahmad Black as the deep safety.

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After the snap, all the defensive backs press their receivers and are in good position to stop the immediate pass.

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While hard to see, the ball has been thrown wide and incomplete. There was room to complete this ball, but not much. Anything over the top had a large risk of being picked by Black and anything on the inside would be easily played by Gaitor. To see what caused the errant throw we must see the rush.

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The design of this blitz brings back a lot of frustrations from the season. It's another awkwardly designed blitz with too much movement that is going to be followed by bad execution. However, there is some strategy to this play. The end result of all the stunting is going to result with two rushers left of the center and four to the right. The defense is attempting to overload one side and get a free rusher. This free rusher is usually the last blitzer to reach the offensive line.

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Moving forward to the pass, Barron does come free and is boring down on Ryan. However, the stunting left end is still wrapping around the line of scrimmage. This sight is all too common when the Bucs stunt. A rusher is left running around who has no chance to reach the quarterback before he can get off a good pass. Regardless, Barron does come free because an offensive lineman blew an assignment among the trash that is created in the middle of the image.

This play epitomizes why the past was dark and why the future can be bright. Neither the rush nor the coverage was perfect. There was room to complete a pass and there was also time for Ryan to get off the pass. However, there wasn't much room or time for either. Throughout the season there were plays where the coverage did a great job for several seconds, but the rush wouldn't get home before the coverage would break down and vice versa (the rush would do great while the coverage failed immediately). This play shows that a good, although not great, pass defense can be achieved when the front and the back are doing their jobs together.

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Earlier in the game, it is 1st and 10 from just short of midfield. The Falcons are showing a running formation in an early down. The Bucs are again playing cover 1 man and are bitzing (shown in the endzone picture). The Falcons are going to do a cheap play action and attempt to bomb it deep right to Roddy White who is being covered by Leonard Johnson.

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Cutting to the end result, the coverage isn't perfect. The ball is being faded to the far shoulder where there is a few yards of space before White goes out of bounds. Johnson does a great job of taking away anything to the inside. He stayed with White step for step and forced the ball to a difficult location to the outside. Barber isn't in a position to make any kind of play on a deep ball to White, but it is good to see a second defender in place to make a tackle if need be.

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Moving to the end zone camera, the Bucs are running a different kind of blitz than the previous play. Bennett is going to drop in man coverage on the tight end while the remaining three defensive lineman, along with the sam linebacker, are all going to slant over one gap. Foster and Barron are going to wrap around the left side of the line and blitz behind the slanting sam.

Stunts and slants are similar because both involve lineman exchanging gap/rush lane responsibilities. The main difference being that slants require lineman to shift gap responsibilities to one side or another (usually in a group like above) while stunts crisscross gap responsibilities - from the previous play the left defensive end was given a gap on the right side of the line.

This defensive play call is very effective against the run. If it was run to the right, the slanting lineman would have great angles to penetrate and cause congestion while David would be given a great opportunity to come untouched. If it was to the left, the wrapping linebacker and safety give the defense a numbers advantage for an easy play.

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Shortly after the snap, the defensive line has begun to slant across the line of scrimmage. The offensive line has slid to the right and both running backs go left to pick up the blitzing Barron and Foster. While everyone does get accounted for, aka no one comes free, the slanting has put a few players in a position to get a good rush. More specifically, the defensive tackle being blocked by #77. The threat of Bennett rushing and the initial wide arc of the 3-technique defensive tackle have widened the right tackle and opened a big hole to the inside. There is an initial second defender on Gonzalez releasing down field which directs Ryan's focus to the deep route down the sideline.

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The 3-technique bursts to the inside and does a great job of pushing the pocket in and getting a hand in Ryan's face during the throw. This penetrating defensive tackle has to be Mccoy right? Try again. How about the name Lazarius Levingston. The slanting has given a defensive tackle you have probably never heard of an opportunity to win a 1 on 1 battle and pressure the quarterback. David also does a great job of getting depth inside of Gonzales to help out Bennett.

Like the first play, the defense isn't doing anything spectacular to play good pass defense. The coverage takes away the initial option and forces Ryan to his second read. Then, the coverage by Johnson is good enough to where the ball can only be completed in a small window off the outside shoulder. The rush, while not having a free rusher or a sack, gets enough pressure in a timely manner to make the difficult throw even harder.

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It is 2nd and 8 with 57 seconds left in the half. This is where the great quarterbacks like Ryan strike. The Bucs are in a Cover 2 Man defense. This defense plays each receiver man to man but also has two safeties giving deep help. The deep help allows the corners to be aggressive and play a trail technique. Trail technique means exactly what it sounds like - the corner will allow the receiver to beat him by a step and the corner will trail the receiver and under cut any route that breaks short or intermediate while allowing the safeties to play the deep pass.

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The Falcons send all their receivers deep on a four verticals play. The corners player low and inside their receivers because of the help over the top. This leaves Ryan with no immediate throw.

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Up front, the Bucs are rushing four while having both of their tackles stunt. Te'o-Nesheim is the right defensive tackle and he is going to be the attacker in the stunt. Mccoy, the left defensive tackle, is going to be the puller as he goes around the attacker. David, the walked up linebacker, is going to read the back. He will match the back if he releases, but if he stays in to block David will blitz.

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The back stays in to block so David blitzes which totals five rushers. From here, I will let the GIF speak for itself. Watch T'eo demolish the center as he isn't looking and get the sack on Ryan.

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The inside stunt did a great job setting up T'eo. The center was too occupied with focusing on double teaming GMC to even think about giving help on the other side. Mccoy does a great job of stepping into the face of the center before pulling around the attacker. Mccoy also manages to beat the right guard with an amazing burst and use of his hands. David does a great job of plowing through the running back and getting into the pocket.

Stunts vs. Slants

Stunting gives the defense a greater opportunity of getting a free rusher, but it can also leave linemen in a more difficult position to win 1 on 1 battles (along with leaving lineman running around doing nothing). Slanting allows linemen to immediately fill rushing lanes, doesn't involve awkward run around be defensive ends, and allows players, even Mr. Levingston, the opportunity to get to the quarterback. Which is more effective is debatable and is largely dependent on the squad running them. However, the large degree of chance for a stunt to be delayed and picked up with ease makes one wonder why the Bucs would run so many.

How much the Bucs stunt or slant next season will be a mystery. With a healthy and talented line up, it is often more advantageous to allow your lineman to pin their ears back and do their thing. Gerald Mccoy recently spoke about how the unit is more focused on a collective effort instead of individuality. Is this directed at stunts/slants? Is it directed towards the front 7 and the secondary working together?

Next Season

The additions of Revis and Goldson change a lot of things for the Tampa Bay defense. The Bucs get a physical middle of the field safety in Goldson and an absolute playmaker in Revis. As previously stated, a good pass defense can be achieved by adequate play from the front and back of the defense working in synchronization, but players like Revis and Goldson don't bring just adequate play- they often bring something closer to perfection. It is constantly talked about how Revis changes what a defense can do, but how much will he actually influence the play calling? Lets look at some tables from earlier in the season.

Week 7 vs Saints
Count 1-Safety 2-Safety Result Avg/Play % of Plays
B 7 6 1 57 8.14 20.00%
M 11 6 5 88 8.00 31.43%
Z-2 13 0 13 134 10.31 37.14%
Z-3 2 1 1 64 32.00 5.71%
Z-6 2 0 2 32 16.00 5.71%


Week 8 vs Vikings
Count 1-Safety 2-Safety Result Avg/Play % of Plays
B 12 9 3 89 7.42 63.16%
M 3 2 1 32 10.67 15.79%
Z-2 2 0 2 5 2.50 10.53%
Z-3 1 0 1 0 0.00 5.26%

Note: Many snaps in the Vikings game are excluded due to the blowout and prevent defense that was run late.

Week 17 vs ATL
Count 1-Safety 2-Safety Result Avg/Play % of Plays
B 7 3 4 53 7.57 16.67%
M 11 2 9 29 2.64 26.19%
Z-2 17 0 17 102 6.00 40.48%
Z-3 2 2 0 10 5.00 4.76%
Z-6 3 0 3 16 5.33 7.14%

First, compare the % of snaps in each coverage between the week 7 and week 8 games. Just a one week difference in the season constituted a massive change in play calling. Almost no zone was run verse the Vikings because of the attacking defense used to help hold Adrian Peterson in check. While in week 7, cover 2 was the dominant play call with only 20% of plays being blitzes.

Next, compare week 7 to week 17. The Bucs are running slightly less blitzes and man coverage, and in turn, running more cover 2. However, look at the results in the average yards per play. Cover 2 in week 7 had an average of 10.31 yards per play while it had an average of 6 yards per play in week 17. That is a massive difference when taking into account the amount of snaps that coverage is played per game. Man coverage in week 17 had an astonishing 2.64 yards per play, and yet, it has a less % of snaps than it did in week 7.

Finally, look at the average yards per play on blitzes- 8.14, 7.42, and 7.57 respectively. That is pretty constant compared to the other play calls. So did the Bucs not get better at blitzing as the season progressed while they improved at everything else? Weren't the blitzes the terrible things that were blowing games? The stats may be lying and I don't have the answer. It just so happens that all but one deep pass in the first half came during a blitz. The other being against cover 2 when Ahmad Black made a great play over Julio Jones.

What does all his mean going into the next season? The play calling may be based more on the opponent rather than the personnel. The differences between week 7 and week 8 are mind blowing. It looks like the numbers are taken from two separate defenses with different systems. However, some things don't quite make sense. For example, Revis is a wasted asset in Cover 2. His skill comes from being able to blanket receivers, cover from line of scrimmage to the end zone, and turn one side of the field into his island. What use is he relegated to a short zone with a safety over the top?

If the Bucs still want to run a majority of zone, they could get creative and run more cover 6 (Revis with a deep half while two deep safeties have 1/4's on the other side) or some variation of coverage to compliment his skills more. However, I would advocate for much more cover 1 (man), blitzes, and zones that use Revis instead of restricting him - mainly Cover 3 with Barron walked into the box.

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