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The Bucs are repeating the mistakes of the past

On Mike Smith, his scheme, and what is perhaps Dirk Koetter’s fatal mistake.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp
Jul 26, 2018; Tampa Bay, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith at One Buccaneer Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After Dirk Koetter was hired to replace Lovie Smith as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, he hired his own former head coach Mike Smith to run the defense. They had been together in Atlanta for several seasons before being fired in favor of Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan.

Perhaps there’s something to be said about familiarity. Perhaps there’s more to be said about nepotism and hiring friends, as opposed to the best people you can find for the job.

The Bucs had struggled for years to put together a good defense. Lovie’s last defense in 2015 had finished 26th vs the pass and ninth against the rush using an antiquated base scheme that was predictable and soft. He had hired his two sons, who were arguably unqualified, along with guys who had no NFL coaching experience or had so many years they were retired before Lovie brought them on. While the national media railed agains the Bucs for terminating him, the firing was justified.

In Mike “Smitty” Smith’s first year coordinating the defense, they were ranked sixth vs the pass and 26th vs the rush. But it was all smoke and mirrors, a ranking built on unsustainable turnover luck that hid a defense among the worst in giving up yards through the air.

Predictably, the turnover luck ran out, and in 2017 the defense bottomed out as the worst in the NFL. They had the worst adjusted sack rate in the league, at 4.3 percent, more than two percent worse than an average defense. His quarters and cover three coverages were predictable and soft.

In May 2018, Mike Smith had this to say:

“It’s got to be a hell of a lot better than what we put out there last year,” Smith said Wednesday, asked how much better his defense must be. “I’ve said it many times. The numbers are not anywhere close to what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to be more consistent in everything we do, and it starts in the meeting rooms, in building trust with one another across the board. That’s the most important thing.”

They had nowhere to go but up. Or so we thought. Through the first three games of 2018, not only has the defense not gotten better from its league-low mark, it has regressed even further. Whereas last season they finished 11.7 percent worse than average on a per-play basis, through three games in 2018 they have been 21 percent worse than how an average defense could be expected to perform. And that was before being gashed by pedestrian young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on Sunday.

This, despite overhauling the defense with seven new players. They signed Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, and Mitch Unrein in free agency, traded for edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, and drafted nose tackle Vita Vea in the first round and cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart in the second round.

Despite all the new players along the defensive line, through three games their adjusted sack rate was a below-average 5.5 percent, just 1.2 percent better than last season’s league-low mark and 1.5 percent lower than the current league average.

In short, it is the second-worst defense in Tampa Bay history, second only to the worst pass defense of all time, the 1986 Bucs, who had a DVOA of 26.1 percent. And that was before letting Trubisky throw for six touchdowns. From the Bucs’ blowout loss to the Bears on Sunday:

...the Bears are the only offense since 2001 to have five touchdown drives of 70-plus yards before halftime. An offense has had at least four such drives in a first half 14 times since 2001, and three of those have happened in the last two weeks of action. The Redskins did it to Green Bay last week, the Rams did it to the Vikings on Thursday night, and now the Bears in this game.

How could they possibly be so much worse despite adding so many better players?

In 2004 the NFL changed the rules regarding pass defense, and the league experienced an explosion in passing and passing efficiency. With it had to come a change in philosophy - defenses needed to key on stopping the pass. While Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson managed 2,000 yards rushing in 2012 and 2009 respectively, they are outliers; the last flashes of a different, now dead era.

The league is, with the help of strictly enforced roughing-the-passer rules and the full-blown league-wide adoption of modern spread passing concepts, currently going through another explosion in passing efficiency in 2018.

Mike Smith had this to say before the 2018 season:

“You know, everybody sometimes gets fixated on sacks and putting pressure on the quarterback,’’ Smith said. “But the number one tenet in the game of football is stopping the run. If you can’t get there and have an advantage with the sticks on third down, it’s much harder to rush the passer.’’

I get it. At least in theory. If you can stop the run on first down, you can force defenses into third-and-long passing-down situations that heavily favor defenses. And the league does, or did, have a problem with running on first down too much. That 2016 defense was good on third-downs.

It’s not just Mike Smith that’s living in the past, though. Dirk Koetter is too. They both have repeatedly shown a misguided fixation on the importance of the running game. What’s so disturbing is they hold this early-2000s viewpoint right in the midst of the greatest passing explosion the league has ever seen.

See, the problem is it’s now easier and more efficient than ever to pass. Teams don’t need to ever run except in short-yardage situations and inside the five-yard line. The passing game has become so extreme that when team’s run outside of those situations they are mathematically leaving yards on the field by choosing to do something less efficient. You do it for the sake of being less predictable. What’s ironic is Mike Smith’s defense would probably only be good at defending an offense being play-called by Dirk Koetter.

But that doesn’t explain what the Bucs are doing, and why it’s not working, or how we got here. To answer that, we have to go back to what Mike Smith tried to do in Atlanta. In this 2014 article written just after Mike Smith was fired by Atlanta, Falcons owner Arthur Blank made the following illuminating comments:

“The design — and Smitty felt strongly, Mike Nolan felt strongly about this, I think Thomas [Dimitroff] was certainly supportive of it — Thomas had strong feelings that we needed to get more pressure,” Blank said. “Smitty and Mike, and others felt that we needed to build from the inside out, we needed to be able to stop the run and that in and of itself would create opportunities.

[snip]

From how vehemently Blank said he feels about pressuring opposing quarterbacks, he paints a picture of he and Dimitroff sitting on one side of an argument, with Smith and Nolan on the other. Owner and general manager wanted pass-rushers, head coach and defensive coordinator wanted interior linemen to help stop the run.

Eventually Dimitroff allowed Smith to call the shot.

[snip]

...the Falcons confused many when in the second round, instead of selecting a pure pass-rusher, they picked defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. There were many pass-rushers still on the board.

Immediately after the pick was made, the Falcons told the media they were classifying Hageman as a defensive end and moving him to the five-technique. While that might have sounded like they were going to turn him into a pass-rusher, Dimitroff dispelled that idea. “He (Hageman) was not drafted to come in and pass-rush,” Dimitroff said some seven months after the draft. “He was drafted to be a guy that was going to be helping us build from the inside out.”

There’s that term “inside out.” Blank used that to describe how Smith and Nolan wanted to construct this defense. Therefore, it sounds like Hageman was a Smith pick, not one Dimitroff completely wanted.

Instead of using Atlanta’s second-round draft pick on such a huge area of need as rushing the passer — and remember, Blank and Dimitroff both sound like rushing the passer is of the utmost importance — the Falcons added their third tool of the offseason to help stop the run.

Atlanta still ranked 21st in the league against the run, and still don’t have a pass-rusher.

Vita Vea, anyone? Beau Allen? Vinny Curry? Does this sound familiar?

Koetter hired Smith and gave him the go-ahead and another chance to build his scheme. And like Dimitroff, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has done his job to facilitate Smitty’s philosophy. The issue is the philosophy itself.

Then there’s this excellent Ringer piece from January 2017:

Dimitroff, then 48, had worked with former Atlanta coach Mike Smith for seven seasons, and a new hire was a chance to consider what he wanted to do differently. From his initial interview with Quinn, Dimitroff says he felt as if he’d found his football soulmate. “When Dan came on, I thought, ‘This is a marriage made in heaven,’” he says from his office overlooking the Falcons practice field.

The pair shared a similar gridiron worldview — that finding exceptional athletes who could cause and negate matchup problems should take precedence over everything else. To ensure that ideology would spread throughout their respective staffs, they decided to hold a daylong symposium — the first of several they’d conduct — during which Quinn and his coaches would present the schemes they planned to implement and the types of players that would best make it work. “In hindsight, as I looked at what we did here before, I didn’t feel like we were as clear on what we needed, the nuances of each position, as we should’ve been,” Dimitroff says. “And Dan completely agreed and we ran with it.”

You can build a defense front to back, reliant on a tremendous front seven to help cover a less-talented secondary, as the Panthers have done successfully for years. Or you can build back to front, with insane playmakers in the secondary. Or you can do both, like the Jacksonville Jaguars have done. What Smith ended up doing in Atlanta was take their even-front (4 defensive linemen) players and added odd-front players. The result was a unit that didn’t have enough players to run either scheme effectively.

I can partially see the philosophy. He wanted Vea to be his Paul Soliai. You draft Vea to two-gap, eat blockers and space. To hold the line of scrimmage against the running game. Keep your speedy linebackers free and clean to make plays. That in theory allows more one-on-one matchups for your All-Pro 3-tech Gerald McCoy, and for Pro-Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul and QB-pressure machine Vinny Curry. That should lead to long third downs right?

But despite making his NFL debut vs the Bears and playing 54 percent of the snaps, Vea has missed so much time, and his backup, Beau Allen, is also hurt. Vea looked like what he was coming out of Washington - a two-down nose tackle. And the Bucs have been decimated in the secondary with injuries as well. That might help explain Trubisky’s historic day. But it doesn’t explain being the worst defense in the league two years in a row.

Smith has made the same mistakes in Tampa Bay that he did in Atlanta. Few teams run strictly two-gap schemes anymore. They are usually one-gap or hybrid gaps, which is what this Smith scheme is. That’s fine, in theory, as long as the goal is to get upfield to rush the passer. But the Bucs’ execution leaves much to be desired. The Bucs have Gerald McCoy, who is a fit for a one-gap scheme, along with linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. Then they have two-gappers, like Vita Vea and William Gholston and Vinny Curry. Edge rusher Noah Spence has regressed after trying to make him a 4-3 edge rusher, then having him add weight. Controlling the line of scrimmage isn’t enough. You have to be disruptive.

Add to it small off-coverage cornerbacks like the soon-to-be-retired Brent Grimes, and trying to mold 2016’s first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III into something similar. They’ve paired them with big lengthy cornerbacks who should be playing in press-man coverage like Carlton Davis and maybe even Ryan Smith, with smaller nickel cornerbacks like M.J. Stewart. The result is even when healthy this Bucs defense is a mixed-up mismatched hodge-podge of players.

Smith, in the golden age of passing, believes that having a strong run-stopping interior backed by soft coverage to prevent big plays is the key to great defensive play. He believes players can play in zone with an eye on the quarterback and break on the ball. Except turnovers are largely based on luck. The result is the Bucs can’t stop anything, or at least nothing that matters. They can’t rush the passer. They aren’t in position to contest catches. And they can’t tackle to limit yards after the catch. They can’t even defend the edge in the run game.

But the idea is to get teams to third-and-long. Keep everything in front of you and rally to the football.

The Bears game on Sunday is a microcosm exposing the problem of his philosophy:

The running game has become irrelevant as the NFL is quickly becoming a position-less league. Safety-linebacker hybrids like Derwin James, or safety-cornerback hybrids like Minkah Fitzpatrick are being drafted to combat wide receiver-tight end hybrids like O.J. Howard and Evan Engram. Or wide receiver-running back hybrids like 100-reception players Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, who are coincidentally on the Bucs’ schedule four times a year. When even running backs are just catching passes, how important is stopping the run? Enough to base your entire defense around it?

What if I told you that philosophy as a base scheme has gone the way of the Tampa 2? What if your pass defense is so bad and predictable no one needs to run against you anyway?

And so Mike Smith, enabled by Jason Licht but especially Dirk Koetter, has repeated his mistakes from Atlanta. A failed experiment twice-over.

It is difficult to argue someone should lose their job. That they should have to uproot their family. But Mike Smith is untenable. He has created a situation that will take years to fix. And that’s if his replacement has a clear vision, the steadfast ability to execute that vision with the rest of the front office, and only if that vision is compatible with the evolution of the NFL. Mike Smith’s tenure in Tampa Bay has failed to do any of those things. Will Dirk Koetter’s mistake doom his own tenure in Tampa Bay? We may find out this season.