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Why you should be optimistic about the Buccaneers defense

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2016 season, not many are giving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense a thought. In fact, it is an afterthought to Winston, Koetter being promoted to head coach, and Pro Football Focus' disdain for anything Buccaneers. To be fair, the secondary was a mess in 2015.

2014 Defensive Line Up

2014 Defensive Starting Unit
Line of Scrimmage
Gholston McCoy McDonald M. Johnson
David Foster Lansanah
Banks Verner
Barron Goldson

Key Reserves: DT Spence, DE J. Smith, S McDougald, S Tandy

2015 Defensive Line Up

2015 Defensive Starting Unit
Line of Scrimmage
Gholston McCoy McDonald G. Johnson
David Alexander Lansanah
JAB Moore
Conte McDougald

Key Reserves:  DT Spence, DE J. Smith, DE Jones, CB Verner, CB Banks, MLB Carter, S Tandy

Lovie Smith employed the Tampa-2 Defense, where the most important position is the middle linebacker (Mike). In a Tampa-2 Defense, the Mike is responsible for the middle third, including the space between the safeties. Both corner backs, both safeties, and Mike were replaced in 2015, all secondary personnel. The Mike was rookie fourth rounder Kwon Alexander, who was projected as a weak side linebacker (Will). Although the organization did bring in a Tampa-2 Mike free agent in Bruce Carter, the organization inserted Alexander as the starter during training camps.

Turnover that high in the secondary is astounding. That reveals a lack of continuity.  Both cornerbacks were benched, young Jonthan Banks and former Pro Bowl corner Alterraun Verner. The safeties were traded away, Mark Barron during the season and Dashon Goldson in the offseason. Middle linebacker Mason Foster was deemed too slow for the position, but free agent Tampa-2 veteran Mike, Bruce Carter, was supplanted by the more athletic Alexander.

The 53 man personnel was controlled by Lovie Smith, with Jason Licht in charge of free agency and the draft. In the 2015 offseason, Lovie then took control over the defensive coordinator (DC) play calling duties -€” altering the defensive mindset. I have empirical proof.

Opposing Offenses vs TB Defense
2014 vs 2015
Team Drive Plays Yards Offensive Scoring 40 + yard Drives 50 + yard Drives 60 + yard Drives 70 + Yard Drives 80 + Yard Drives 90 + yard Drives Total
2014 Avg 11.81 69.31 367.00 24.13 0.81 1.13 0.81 0.63 0.75 0.13 4.25
2014, Last 10 games 12 67.60 329.70 19.80 0.80 1.40 0.70 0.50 0.50 0.10 4.00
2015 Avg 11.31 67.25 352.31 24.81 0.88 0.94 1.00 0.81 0.56 0.00 4.09

Going into 2015 season, this was supposed to be the second year of the Tampa-2 defense under DC Leslie Frazier. It took six games in the first year and the bye week for the players and coaches to be on the same page. Afterwards, the defense just took off into a top 10 defensive status!

Also denoted in this chart is the fall of that progress which was made in latter parts of the 2014 season. Lovie felt blindsided when he was fired -€” completely oblivious to what he had destroyed on the defensive side of the ball.

Lovie was too focused on finding players to fit his scheme and creating an outside-in scheme that left the middle of the field open. It was left open to a rookie linebacker who was projected to be a weak side linebacker.  Again, you can tell statistically the massive difference in play between a Leslie Fraizer led defense and a Lovie Smith led defense, 2014 v 2015.

Back to the Future

There is reason for optimism for the defense.

TB Bucs
Football Oustiders Defensive Rankings, 2011 - 2015
Year Total Def Rank Total Def DVOA Pass Rank Pass Def Rush Rank Rush Def Head Coach
2011 31 14.20% 31 21.30% 30 7.60% Morris
2012 20 2.90% 26 16.90% 3 -19.60% Schiano
2013 8 -6.80% 11 -0.10% 8 -14.90% Schiano
2014 18 1.10% 23 14.90% 8 -14.50% Smith
2015 18 3.30% 26 20.60% 9 -16.50% Smith

We already know we have a competent run stuffing defense. In fact, Football Outsiders had listed the 2014 run defense versus one back set to be a top five defense since 2007.

Best Run Defenses vs. 1 Back, 2007-2015
Rank Year Team DVOA
1 2014 DET -37.80%
2 2015 ARI -34.60%
3 2015 NYJ -32.60%
4 2014 TB -32.10%
5 2013 NYJ -30.80%

The passing defense is where the team has had struggles in last year. We already knew the defense made massive improvements after the bye week in 2014.

Johnthan Banks was drafted in 2013. He started all 16 games under Schiano's defense. Banks had three interceptions in his rookie year with Schiano. In 2014, he had four interceptions the following year under Leslie Frazier running the defense.  To give an inkling of what to expect out of a Mike Smith defense, Pewter Report has a great quote from Banks himself on the matter:

"I think it's a great scheme," Banks said. "I'm excited about it. It's like my rookie year with Coach Schiano. It was a fun out there. Coach Schiano was sending blitzes every which way and the quarterback doesn't have time to think about it and they just throw the ball to you. I'm excited to not just sit out there, but get out there and compete for the ball. With this new defense the ball is going to have to come out quick. The quarterback can't just sit back there and hold the ball and pick us apart. I'm excited. I think it's going to be a great year and we're going to have a lot of fun."

2016 Defensive Line Up

2015 Defensive Starting Unit
Line of Scrimmage
Gholston McCoy McDonald Ayers
David Alexander Smith
Grimes Verner
Conte McDougald

Key Reserves:  DT Spence, DE J. Smith, DE N. Spence, DE Jones, CB VH3, CB Banks, CB JAB, S Tandy

For 2015 offseason, the defense added MLB Bruce Carter, S Chris Conte, and a bunch of players for defensive tackle and cornerback position that were not retained. Also, in the draft, it added MLB Kwon Alexander.  Carter was supplanted by Alexander due to Alexander's athleticism. Little known practice squad pick up was DE Howard Jones in early September of that season as well. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, only Conte remained out of the free agents.

Going into the 2016 free agent season, improving the pass rush and secondary was an imperative. So in comes DE Robert Ayers and CB Brent Grimes.

Although Ayers does seem like a one hit statistical wonder with 9.5 sacks coming last season after a consecutive five sack seasons, Ayers brings versatility of being able to play DT. Even with just producing five sacks, the Bucs have two underrated sack artists in Jacquies Smith and Howard Jones, seven sacks and five sacks, respectively.

Grimes loves interceptions. That is a great quality to have in a cornerback. The fact he has worked under defensive coordinator Mike Smith and had the most interceptions in a season with Smith is added bonus. Grimes knows the system.

In the draft, the organization doubled up on those positions of interest -€” pass rushing sack specialist and cornerback. CB Vernon Hargraves III was selected in the first round and DE Noah Spence was selected in the second round. Spence has a first round grade, but due to off-field problems which led to being kicked out of Ohio State was one of the major concerns of many teams.

The Bucs have a stable of veteran and young prospects at both pass rushing as well as cornerback positions. That is actual depth that the organization can develop behind veteran starters.

There is a magnanimous amount of trust in the players kept on defense from the front office as they believe they were probably misused. Here is another quote from the same Pewter Report article, but this time it is coming from Alterraun Verner:

"To sum it up it [2015 season] was disappointing, but I think the reason a lot of guys are being brought back is because we know what every guy is capable of doing. Dirk has seen us every day. He's seen the work we've put in. He and Jason [Licht] trust us enough to bring almost the same group back to get it done with a few additions. You don't want to end a year with six interceptions. Johnthan and myself had six together the year before and probably should have had a lot more that year."

Stopping the run has not been a problem with this team for the past four years, as denoted in the Football Outsiders' Defensive Rankings, 2011 -€” 2015 chart. It is the passing defense that needs much addressing. The best insight to give is a quote by Mike Smith in this article by Roy Cummings:

But, [Mike] Smith said, there are only so many options up front. The back end of the defense, however, is another story.

"In terms of what you do on the back end, you have a lot more flexibility," he said. "That's one of the things we're going to look at as a coaching staff -€” putting our guys in the best position and, in turn, trying to make it difficult for the quarterback and offensive coordinator on the other side."

Tampa's defensive ship has good bones, but its former captain ran it asunder. There was talent and production in 2013. After the bye week in 2014, similar talent existed from 2013 and was a top 10 defense. 2015 was lost in a haze with the talent carrying over from 2014 on board. Using patterns, 2015 looks like an anomaly due to coaching.  With more talent added on the defensive ship and a new captain directing its course, this defense may turn into a top 10 defense this year.

Bucs Ghost Ship