The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense had a bit of an up-and-down season, but ended on a high note. They were one of the better defenses in the NFL over the second half of the season, but they really excelled in one aspect over the entire season: defending the play-action pass.
In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Bucs were the third-best defense against play-action, and only the 11th-best against non-play-action passes. And surprisingly, teams tried to get them with play-action a lot: only seven teams faced play-action more often.
I’m actually really surprised by this finding, mostly because I’m not overly impressed by the Bucs’ safeties—and those are often the most vulnerable players against play-action. Get a safety to bite, and you open up loads of room in the defense.
On the other hand, this is a testament to Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. They’re both very fast and very good at diagnosing plays, and disciplined enough not to get taken in by play-action too much. Part of this is a result of their quickness and agility, too: if they do get taken in, they can recover quickly and effectively.
And all of this is extra-impressive once you realize that the Bucs’ pass rush was pretty mediocre, which means that quarterbacks generally should have had plenty of time to find a receiver down the field. And yet, they couldn’t.
Part of that may be Mike Smith’s fairly conservative approach to defense: there’s a few more blitzes than under Lovie Smith but overall he’s not taking a lot of massive risks. That could change a little bit this year as he’ll show more 3-4 looks but overall, sending four pass-rushers and always having some safety help in coverage has been his pretty successful approach.
All of this bodes well for the defense this year, which should be slightly improved over last season. We should get better play out of Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence in their second years, while there’s a small chance Justin Evans steps in and provides a decent upgrade at safety immediately. The big question mark is whether Brent Grimes can keep up his strong play for another season—but I’m hopeful there.
And hopefully, teams will try to get the Bucs with that play-action trick a lot more often this year. They’ll fail.