The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up a terrible performance on defense against Washington yesterday, and that isn't the first time under Lovie Smith. This season alone, the Bucs have allowed 15 passing touchdowns, ranked second in the league. Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota and now Kirk Cousins made the Bucs defense look like Swiss cheese -- surprisingly the only quarterback who didn't was Drew Brees. Naturally, many people have blamed the scheme -- and especially Lovie Smith's unearned reputation for running vanilla zone coverage on most plays.
I say unearned because that analysis isn't based on anything the Bucs have put on the field the past two years, or any defense Lovie Smith has fielded since the late 2000s. Man coverage is a staple in Tampa Bay's defense, and the days of playing Tampa 2 on most plays are so far in the past it's not even worth talking about.
"We had a lot of open looks and a lot of man coverage and them making plays where we couldn't guard," Lovie Smith said yesterday. "So it's a combination of both [zone and man]. You kind of mix it up as much as you possibly can, but whether it's zone or man, it normally comes down to a one-on-one situation and we didn't make enough plays."
That fits with what I've seen on tape, what Stephen White has said, what Greg Cosell has said, and really what anyone who's looked at the film consistently will say. The Bucs have played a variety of coverages and have actually blitzed a decent amount the last few games, even on Kirk Cousins' game-winning touchdown drive. The problem isn't that the scheme is vanilla, or that everyone knows what Lovie Smith is calling -- it's much simpler than that: players keep messing up.
For instance, people instantly blamed soft zone coverage for giving up a touchdown drive at the end of the game. Yet I counted five blitzes on ten plays, and man coverage on at least those five plays and likely a few more -- the difference can be tough to tell on quick throws. Zone coverage simply is not the issue. The Bucs get beat playing man just as much.
That's not absolving Lovie Smith in any way. These are Lovie Smith's players. He picked them, and he's coaching them. If they all keep messing up, that's squarely on his shoulders. But it's important to be clear about why it's on his shoulders.
As an example, on the key touchdown drive, the Bucs gave up a quick slant to Jordan Reed to allow a touchdown. That's bad, obviously -- but why is it bad? Were the Bucs playing man coverage or zone coverage? Andy Benoit for The MMQB blames Lavonte David for not getting to Reed fast enough to bracket him. But after the game, Lovie Smith blamed Bradley McDougald and his failure to take away the slant. "You're supposed to not let him have the slant, simple as that." Lovie Smith said. "When you get down close to the goal-line like that, you make them throw a fade, you don't let them complete the easiest throw."
And what about the other side of the field? That featured three defenders taking on four receivers, while Jordan Reed was being defended by three defensive backs. Something here is rotten, and it isn't at all clear whose fault it is.
Me, I can't tell what's supposed to be happening -- the play is too quick to say anything decisively about the design of the defense, or which player specifically screwed up. The two are related: if McDougald is playing his assignment correctly, it has to be David's fault -- and the other way around. It's impossible to know which is which without access to the playcall.
Ultimately, though, which player screwed up is beside the point because the Bucs have seen their players taking turns doing so throughout the season, especially in the secondary. It doesn't matter who's in there, they've all done it. The Bucs benched Tim Jennings -- deactivated him even -- and that didn't help, either.
And all of that is on Lovie Smith.