The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Mike Smith to revamp their defense, but it's unclear how different he'll actually be from Lovie Smith. In his inaugural press conference, the former Falcons head coach talked about running a flexible defense out of a 4-3 base in his inaugural press conference, but didn't give us a lot of details. So I turned to Dave Choate of the Falcoholic to ask him about Mike Smith's defenses with the Falcons.
How involved was Mike Smith in running the day-to-day defense?
He was, from my impression, not overly involved in the day-to-day work, especially when Mike Nolan came on board. Smith always seemed like he was good at delegating, and while I'm sure he was involved in broad strategy discussions and planning, Brian Van Gorder and Nolan did a lot of the coordination.
When Mike Nolan came in, it seemed like the Falcons switched to more of a 3-4 defense. How big was the commitment to that defense, did you still see a lot of 4-3, and how well did it work?
We all thought the switch to a 3-4 would be more drastic than it actually was. The Falcons essentially still played a ton of nickel and 4-3 concepts with a very heavy front that often featured Jonathan Babineaux at defensive end, and tried to disguise what they were doing.
It did not work particularly well. The Falcons got gashed on the ground, killed through the air, and couldn't muster up much of a pass rush. There's little doubt that the team simply didn't have the personnel to run what it wanted to, but at the same time, Smith and Nolan's defense definitely didn't put the front seven in particular in a position to succeed.
How aggressive was Smith's defense? Was he more blitz-heavy, or was it closer to a Tampa 2-style bend-but-don't-break defense? How big of a focus were turnovers?
Smith's defense was solid enough at getting to the passer at first, but it was never an overly aggressive scheme. The Falcons were at their best when they followed that bend-don't-break ethos and forced a ton of turnovers, with 2012 being the high water mark for Smith's defenses in a lot of ways. The team was good at disguising their coverage, moving things around, and generally covering up some of their persistent weaknesses up front by employing confusion and some aggressive cornerbacks and safeties. Not a ton of blitzing, though, and the players were probably more aggressive than the scheme.
I feel like generally speaking, Mike Smith's defenses weren't all that great in Atlanta. Is that accurate? And if so, was that more due to personnel deficiencies, coaching problems, or both?
You would be right, they were rarely better than middle-of-the-pack, and were worse than that more than once. I think a lot of that had to do steady erosion of talent on defense and some failed draft picks and free agents, because the team rarely had more than one competent pass rusher and made do with a lot of aging or uninspiring talent in the front seven. Some of that does have to fall on Smith, who employed Van Gorder and Nolan and certainly didn't seem to have the kind of hands-on role you would expect from a defensive whiz.
Bottom line with Smith, you're getting a steady, quality player's coach who did nice work in Jacksonville defensively. Whether that's enough for Tampa Bay probably depends mostly on your talent.