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Greg Schiano's Defensive Philosophy Explained

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Al Messerschmidt

So, you want to know how Greg Schiano will run this football team? The Bucs have been awfully quiet about schematics or even their overall philosophy on defense or on offense. A few soundbites have made it out of the building (run the ball and throw deep, for instance), but nothing structured has come out. We know he will run a one-gap, 4-3 defense - but nothing more detailed than that. To get that, we need to go elsewhere: to Greg Schiano's time at Rutgers University. Early in 2011, he gave a presentation for Nike Coach of the Year on the defensive fundamentals of football. This video is available right here, as first pointed out by Old School of What The Buc. If you want to see the Bucs' new coach talk about the details of coaching, it's well worth the $10. If you don't want to pay that, I'm going go through some of the key points in this story.

One thing that's worth noting: he illustrates everything I'm about to write about with concrete drills to run in practice. These are not just soundbites, he has structured ways to drill everything into his players, to the point where it should become instinct. A great example of that: Devin McCourty, a 2010 first-round draft pick for the Patriots. Schiano keeps using him to show how it should be done, and that paid off for him in the NFL. This doesn't mean Schiano's doing anything different from the previous Buccaneers coaches, though: they all taught fundamentals, and they all probably had structured ways to drill those fundamentals. But it's very interesting to see Schiano talk about these things.

The Basics: Everything in three soundbites

Greg Schiano believes players don't learn in sentences, but in soundbites. By this he means one simple thing: when a player makes a mistake, he wants that player to simply repeat a simple mantra instead of going through an extensive thought process. Football is best played fast, instinctive, and with relatively little conscious thought. For instance, after a player drops an interception, Schiano wants him saying to himself "Thumbs, thumbs, thumbs" instead of "Don't drop it next time". If a player misses a tackle, the mantra should be "Wrap and roll". That doesn't make sense now, but it will after you've read the rest of the story.

Another part of Schiano's philosophy in teaching players: everything comes in threes. Why? Because it's very hard to focus on more than three things at a time, unless you're a genius. At least, that's Schiano's philosophy when it comes to these things. So let's go into a few of those things.

Defensive philosophy in threes: Stop The Run, Limit Big Plays, Create Takeaways

1. Stop The Run

By this, Schiano means one thing: keep the opposing team under 100 yards rushing, and you're likely to win every game. He notes a statistical correlation, although I'm always wary of those: does keeping rushers under 100 yards cause wins, or does winning cause keeping rushers under 100 yards? Remember that teams stop rushing the ball when they're down big, or down late in games, while they rush more often if they're up late in games to run out the clock. Regardless of the truth, this is the number one point in Schiano's defensive philosophy, and you can expect it to be emphasized with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well.

2. Limit Big Plays

Big plays in Schiano's mind are plays of 25 yards or more. Eliminating those plays entirely is not realistic: they're going to happen. Instead, keeping hem down to two per game is the goal. Again, he notes a statistical correlation between limiting those big plays and winning - in this case, it's likely a case of causation as well as correlation.

3. Create Takeaways

His goal: three takeaways per game. He calls them 'takeaways' because 'turnover' is a passive term. Great stuff.

How do you execute those goals: Smart Swarm, Tackling, Ball Disruption

1. Smart Swarm

Every team and every coach teaches 'swarm'. It means simply: everyone run to the football. Getting your players to do it is a lot harder. But Greg Schiano has a structured way to get this done, as he does for everything: set the edge, have a cutoff player, press the hip. One player to the play side has to set the edge to turn the player back into the rest of the team. There's one cutoff player on the backside, who takes an angle to take out the play if the opponent manages to break through. The other nine guys on defense are coached to 'press the hip'. By this, Schiano means that they should watch the hips of the player - they will tell you whether he is about to change direction, or keep going. To quote Schiano: "If the hip comes down, we come to balance. When the hip goes high, we let it fly."

2. Tackling

Again, there are three points to his tackling drills: Bite The Ball, Wrap And Roll, Sweep The Ankle. 'Bite The Ball' simply means to keep your head up, and hit the ball with your helmet so you could 'bite' it if there was no facemask. On contact, players have to keep their legs moving and drive the ball carrier through the ground. Again: very fundamental stuff, and it should be nothing new, but it does work.

'Wrap and Roll' is the fallback option. If you notice that you've lost the angle to 'bite the ball', you need to wrap up around the waist and start rolling. You'll slide down, but eventually you will bring that player down. As Schiano notes: everyone is the same size around the ankles.

Finally, if all else is lost: Sweep The Leg Ankle. Take your outside arm and try to swat at the opponent's front ankle. Swatting with the outside arm gives you a farther reach, while swatting at the front ankle means if you miss, you still hit the back leg. Championship Productions put a clip of Schiano explaining this on their website, and it's well worth a watch. The great thing is that I saw this drill show up in some of the videos the Bucs' put up on their own website, with Da'Quan Bowers executing it at 00:35 in this video. Schiano claims that he learned this from Bill Belichick, but I think it's more likely he looked to a certain '80s movie for inspiration.

A few more notes on tackling: you can only tackle when you're in a football playing position, as Greg Schiano calls it. To do so, a player must come to balance - "If the hip comes down, we come to balance. When the hip goes high, we let it fly." Except: when you know there's help in your scheme ( as there would be in zone coverage): aim outside the near hip, don't break down. Why? It's faster, and if you miss you know the player is turned into your help. For corners in that situation, he teaches them to take out the knee. Again: very Karate Kid.

3. Ball Disruption

This comes back to takeaways. Schiano notes six ways to create takeaways, so I'll go through them one by one here.

- Sack/fumble: When coming in for a blindside hit, players must try to knock out the ball. Schiano has a specific technique for this: hit the throwing arm and pull it down and back, while simultaneously pinning the other arm. He calls the first move 'wax on/wax off' (everything is Karate Kid). The reason for pinning the other arm simultaneously is simple: it must be done simultaneously, so the QB doesn't feel that and then protect the ball as a reaction. But if the QB does manage to do that, by pinning his other arm you remove his ability to support himself when he falls.

- 2nd man strip: This comes up in a specific situation: when a ball carrier is held up by one of your defenders, and the tackle is secured, there's often a window to try to strip the ball. That's what the second man has to do: he has to rip at both tips of the ball to get it out.

- Chase strip: If a defender is in a trail position, he must try to strip the ball. He can do this by chopping down if he's to the ball side, or by an uppercut if the ball is away from him - because you can't reach that side with a chopping motion.

- Mirror the throwing arm: When you're rushing the QB and he's about to throw, get your arm up. Specifically, get the mirrored arm up: that means if the QB is right-handed, a player must get his left hand up. This helps to get in a passing lane and it is another Belichick-ism, so says Schiano. Obviously, this will lead to swatted balls, but even those balls that aren't swatted down will have a slightly altered trajectory, leading to more interceptions down the field. Interestingly, he doesn't want his players to go after the QB on rollouts and scrambles unless they're very close, as he prefers them to roll with the QB while keeping their arm up to disrupt passing lanes.

- Sideline recovery: Simply put - how to recover a fumble, and hold on to it at the bottom of a pile. A sideline drill forces players to make a decision to bat the ball back or fall on it, as out of bounds recoveries are obviously bad. Schiano's philosophy to hold onto the ball at the bottom of the pile: get in a fetal position, close your eyes, close your mouth, squeeze your butt cheeks. I'm not kidding: that's what he coaches. In addition, if a friendly player gets to a pile, he has to aggressively wrap up his own guy to protect him and the ball.

Catch The Ones They Throw You: Simply put: don't drop interceptions. That sounds a lot easier than it really is, and I'm sure this won't be revolutionary. All he teaches his defenders here is simple Pop Warner fundamentals: if the ball is above your nipples, get your thumbs together. If it's below your nipples, get your pinkies together. That way, when a player drops an interception, he thinks "thumbs, thumbs, thumbs" or "pinkies, pinkies, pinkies" to remind himself of the right technique.

Wrapping up

Schiano makes one last observation: when trained behavior becomes instinct, you've repped it enough. This is a simple truth, but it takes a long time to repeat drills and movements until they become instinctive. The Bucs lacked fundamentals these past seasons on defense, and Schiano has to drill them back into the team. They can't have another year of being the worst tackling team in football.

One final note: Schiano said at the end of the video that he doesn't believe there's anything secretive you can't figure out by just watching the tape. While Schiano has ties to Belichick, he doesn't appear to be as closed or secretive, and with a bit of luck and inquisitive beat writers, we could get a lot of interesting points out of the Bucs new head coach.