The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Mike Smith to run their defense, which means there was some initial confusion about what that defense would look like. He'd spent most of his career running a 4-3 front, but spent the last three years of his tenure in Atlanta asking Mike Nolan to switch to more of a 3-4 front. Beyond that, we knew little about his intentions as a defensive coordinator: the last time he'd focused solely on running a defense was back in 2007, and much has changed since then. Smith answered a few of those questions in his first press conference today.
"It's gonna be very flexible," Smith said. "I think in this day and age you have to get different looks. You can't line up in the same look and the same front every time, so we're going to have a lot of flexibility and we're going to identify what the players are capable of doing and try to give different looks to the quarterback. Because if a quarterback has time in this league, he's going to be a guy that's going to be able to cut you up. So we've gotta do a very good job of putting together a package that is flexible, multiple, yet simple for our plays and complex for the quarterback and the opposing coaching staff."
This is different from what Lovie Smith did, who usually made things look similar pre-snap, with most of his shifts coming after the snap. It's not necessarily better, but it's certainly a change. It can also ask a lot of your defensive backs to constantly shift and try to do new things: that's how coverage breakdowns happen, as we saw all too frequently under Greg Schiano. So keeping the defense simple for your own players is key.
As for the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4, Smith doesn't think the difference is that big.
"We're going to base out of a four-man front. But again when you play with a four-man front, you over shift and you're in a 3-4. You start in a 3-4, you over shift and you're in a 4-3. There's not a whole lot of difference in terms of what you do, it's a matter of how you're going to put your shell in the back-end. And I think that's the thing that you have to do, you have to give the quarterback different looks. Your front, there's only so many things you can do."
To a large extent, he's right. The issue isn't so much whether you're edge player has his hand on or off the ground or where exactly your players align, it's more about what you ask them to do specifically. You can run a one-gap, Tampa-2 style defense from a 3-4 front, and you can run a heavy, two-gapping, blitz-heavy scheme out of a 4-3 -- and you can run all things in between. What the front looks like isn't all that important.
So how will the Bucs play? While Smith didn't explicitly say so, the fact that he talked about over shifts (where the defensive line shifts one gap towards the strong side of the offensive formation) suggests that the Bucs are likely to stick with a one-gap scheme. That fits the personnel, with Smith highlighting Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David as stars on defense, and most of Smith's personal history as a coach.