The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used to build their defense around arguably the best undersized linebacker in the history of the NFL: Derrick Brooks. The fact that Brooks managed to be so productive seems to have left a permanent mark on the organization, as they seem incapable of going with any player who is not undersized at Derrick Brooks' old weakside linebacker position (technically this description is inaccurate, but it will have to do). When Brooks got cut, they initially wanted to give his job to former safety (and undersized linebacker) Jermaine Phillips. That experiment didn't last very long, but replacement Geno Hayes wasn't particularly large either. And now, the Bucs have two new possible starters at weakside linebacker: Lavonte David and....Rennie Curran?
Yes, Rennie Curran has apparently been running with the first-team defense in OTAs ahead of
thirdsecond-round draft pick Lavonte David, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Curran himself was a third-round pick for the Tennessee Titans in 2010, but the Titans decided to go with larger players at linebacker and decided he wasn't a good fit for their defense in 2011. At least, that's the story, but players generally don't get cut if they're very good, but just a little undersized. There's undoubtedly more to the story as to why he got cut, but for now he's the Bucs' starting linebacker. Will that last into the season? Probably not. Curran has a head-start on David in learning the playbook, but that gap will be closed eventually. More importantly, draft picks almost always have a leg up in any competition - that's just how the NFL works.
Back to the point I was making: the Bucs love undersized linebackers. None of the linebackers I listed above is taller than 6'1", and all of them weigh(ed) 235 lb or less. Typically, NFL linebackers are closer to 6'2" or taller and weigh 240 lb or more, and 3-4 linebackers tend to be even bigger. But not for the Bucs in the past 17 or so years. So, how and why did they make that work?
The short answer is: Tampa 2. The Bucs needed their linebackers to be excellent in coverage, especially their weakside linebacker in their zone coverage scheme. To be excellent in coverage, players need to be fast, and size doesn't matter as much. The ability to take on blocks, stack and shed in the box and beat offensive linemen to get to running backs was secondary. Not that the Bucs didn't want to stop the run, but their scheme called for faster linebackers there, too.
Every man in the front-seven was tasked with tasked with guarding one 'gaps' - the space between two blockers.To do so, they didn't necessarily need to be able to take on a lineman head-on, they needed to be able to stay with him and stay in their gaps. This was especially true for Derrick Brooks, as most runs were 'forced' to his gap, where he was supposed to make the tackle. No surprise, then, that he was the Bucs' leading tackler in almost every season of his tenure. So how do you get an undersized linebacker to function, without seeing him blown up by any stray blockers?
Well, first, the linebacker needs to be good. He needs to have the technique to slip a block - he doesn't need to have the strength to shed a lineman, but he needs to know how to avoid the block. More importantly, he needs to be a great tackler, he needs to have the speed and discipline to flow to the ball, and he needs to know when to shoot a gap to make a tackle in the backfield - and when to stay home, so the running back doesn't blow by him.
To help him do all that, the Bucs lined up Brooks behind the 3-technique defensive tackle. Typically, that was the Bucs' most disruptive defensive lineman, epitomized by Warren Sapp in his heyday. By lining Brooks up behind that player, the offensive linemen couldn't get to Brooks. The guard was busy trying to keep the DT from blowing up the play, while the tackle was occupied with the defensive end and the center was generally too far away to effectively block Brooks. The result was, generally, a solid tackle and a successful play.
Over the past few years, Geno Hayes was asked to fulfill that role. At times, he looked great, but he struggled too often. Three problems plagued the linebackers: first, he wasn't a great tackler. Second, he wasn't disciplined enough. At times he would make a terrific play, flashing his talent, but then he'd follow it up by overrunning a play or otherwise missing his assignment. Third, and perhaps most importantly: he didn't have a great 3-technique to play behind. In his first year, he was playing behind the Disastrous Duo of Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan. In 2010, Gerald McCoy joined the fray and Hayes actually had his best season, although McCoy too was inconsistent. In 2011, Hayes and the entire front seven got off to a terrific start in the first few games - they were flying around and playing very well. And then, Gerald McCoy got hurt, the Bucs had no competent 3-technique to take over and everything collapse - with Hayes' play really going down the drain.
All this to point out that what an undersized weakside linebacker needs to function well is a quality defensive tackle playing in front of him. And once again, we're back to the player who will be the key to the Tampa Bay defense this year: Gerald McCoy. Can he stay healthy and finally show off his impressive talent?
The Bucs appear to be ready to continue with their undersized weakside linebackers. While Mark Dominik has occasionally talked about increasing the size of the linebacking corps, he hasn't been able to really do that. And once again, the Bucs appear to have two undersized players competing for playing time on the weak side of the defense.