After two seasons of endless blitzes, useless stunts and the dreaded three-man rush, Bill Sheridan has been relieved of his duties as the Buccaneers defensive
saboteur coordinator. Like fellow coordinator Mike Sullivan, Sheridan previously coached at Army and at the New York Giants, though he came to the Bucs just weeks after accepting a job as Ohio State's cornerbacks coach following two years as the Miami Dolphins' inside linebackers coach.
In some ways, it may be considered unfair for Sheridan to be fired for the defense's failings - after all, the defensive scheme appeared to have little input from Sheridan but was rather transferred wholesale from Greg Schiano's Rutgers defenses. Still, as his only previous defensive coordinator stint, with the Giants in 2009, ended very poorly (famously blaming the poor season on injuries rather than his inability to scheme for backups), I'm not sure how far that exonerates him, especially as he was still in charge of the play calling, if not the actual game planning or schemes.
In many ways 2013 was a marked improvement over 2012 for the Bucs' defense. The team improved from an embarrassing 29th in total defense to an average 17th, and actually improved in a whole host of other categories too - from 23rd to 17th in scoring defense, 32nd to 17th in passing defense, 10th to 3rd in interceptions, and 30th to a still-bad 23rd in sacks. Of course, the one area the Bucs could hang their hat on in 2012, their run defense - first in both overall run defense and, more importantly, yards-per-attempt allowed - tumbled to an unspectacular, but not terrible 15th. As a whole, the defense improved from 'horrible' to 'average' between Sheridan's first and second year.
So why the change?
Simple: when you have the best defensive tackle, 4-3 linebacker (inside or outside - take that Panthers fans!) and corner (when healthy) in the NFL, average is simply unacceptable.
Schiano may be the one who devised the Bucs' defensive scheme, but Sheridan was the one who called the plays, and far too often he would call the same plays over and over again despite their obvious failures - stunts that killed our defensive line, and blitzes that killed our secondary.
The stunts in particular were especially frustrating. Stephen White has spent many weeks lambasting Sheridan's frequent use of stunts, and it should be obvious just why they were so damaging - they forced the league's best defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy, into constant doubleteams, despite the fact that Adrian Clayborn - who was drafted on his reputation of being a strong, big-bodied defensive end - is simply not physically built to be quick enough to take advantage of the holes that these double teams opened up. Taking arguably your best defensive weapon and deliberately running plays that intentionally marginalise his impact should have been cause enough in and of itself to warrant Sheridan's firing.
When your own players have to frequently come to your office to ask you to knock off the stunts, as Gerald McCoy had to throughout 2012 and 2013, then that should be a hint that something's wrong. When we had our exclusive one-on-one with Roy Miller earlier this year, he shed some insights into the Bucs' stunting - to pull out a specific quote from Miller:
Everybody has to be exactly where they're supposed to be, or else the whole thing falls apart.
Despite this, Sheridan repeatedly called for stunts, leaving huge gaps which, if there wasn't a blitz being sent up behind, left massive running holes, in particular, mobile quarterbacks to gash the Bucs repeatedly.
There's an argument to be made that without the stunts that Sheridan dialled up so frequently, Lavonte David would likely not have reached 6 sacks this season - but that hardly justifies his blitz-heavy approach. Too frequently we saw other teams successfully executing screens that would go long distances against the Bucs' blitz, and even right down to his final outing against the Saints yesterday, Sheridan ignored the cardinal sin - you don't go blitz-heavy against elite quarterbacks - allowing Drew Brees to kill the Bucs over the middle.
Finally, we have to pay special mention to the secondary. The back-end of the Bucs' defense under Sheridan's two years as coordinator have been an exercise in stubbornness. 2012 saw extensive and practically exclusive use of man coverage, typically with just a single high safety, allowing Sheridan to dial up all the blitzes he was so fond of. It didn't end well for the team, especially when starting CB duo Aqib Talib and Eric Wright were suspended due to PED use, with the former eventually being traded at the deadline to the Patriots. With EJ Biggers and Leonard Johnson now being asked to play man-press on receivers, with only an out-of-position Mark Barron playing single-high deep centerfield over the top, it was unsurprising that the Bucs came just a few yards shy of putting up the worst single-season passing defense of all time.
Without possessing the corners you need to play that scheme - guys who can effectively play on an island - a good coordinator should look to playing more zone coverage, where weaker corners can get more help. It took Sheridan until Week 17, against the Falcons, to finally do so - despite the fact that the team had at one point been 6-4, in position of a playoff spot, but kept losing games because the secondary gave up last-minute drives.
So, with the defensive staff not changing their schemes, the Bucs went out and got the best corner in the NFL in Revis, at huge expense, as he should have been a perfect fit for that man-press scheme requiring corners to play on islands.
Except the coaching staff did decided to change the secondary coverage from being predominantly man, with poor ill-equipped corners, to being predominantly zone, now that they had a truly elite corner on their roster. The mind truly boggles.
Well, after misusing McCoy for two years and Revis for one, Sheridan is now gone. He may have improved the defense to the gaudy heights of "right around league average" in 2013, but considering the talent on this team, his only success with the Bucs' D was keeping them consistently from playing up to their level of talent.