In 2017 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line was an achilles heel. They were led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers, William Gholston, then-heralded free agent Chris Baker, and of course 2016 2nd Round pick Noah Spence and talented but injured Jacquies Smith. But all did not go according to plan.
Spence tore his labrum again and played in only 6 games. Smith wasn’t the same player after consecutive serious knee injuries and was cut in November. Injuries also limited the 32 year-old Ayers for the second year in a row. Chris Baker was a disappointment.
From the depleted depth emerged concerns about poor scheme adjustments that asked McCoy to two-gap to free up other players for one-on-one opportunities they couldn’t capitalize on, instead of the other way around, and stunts that tried to manufacture a pass rush that instead caused an already slow pass rush to become sloth-like. After that, any desperate attempt to blitz only caused the defense to get burned worse. The result was frustrating for staff and fans alike: a defense that ranked 20th vs the run and dead last in the NFL in sacks with a 4.3 percent adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), more than two percent worse than the league average and almost three percent worse than their fifth best ranking of 7.1 percent in 2016. Combined with a struggling secondary and stuck in something of a feedback loop, the Bucs were the worst defense in the NFL last year.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith wants to hybrid gap, to have massive players eat up blocks up front so speedy linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are free to run to the ball and outnumber the offense at the point of attack and so McCoy can penetrate the backfield with his quickness.
While the results haven’t come as quickly or as splashy as we may have liked, and by no means is this process complete. But in his own way Jason Licht (perhaps with help from new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner) has been nonetheless systematically remaking this defensive line after the disappointing 2017 campaign. Gone are Tampa’s last defensive line coach Jay Hayes, Chris Baker, and now Robert Ayers.
In are reserve defensive tackle Beau Allen, DE/DT Mitch Unrein, and now pressure-generator defensive end Vinny Curry. Allen and Curry were two of the Top 6 2-deep players on the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2nd ranked defensive line and from a defense that ranked 3rd vs the rush and led the NFL in defensive pressures. Yes, the Bucs don’t have Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, or Timmy Jernigan. But what they do have now is quality depth without sacrificing size.
Depth matters. The Eagles had 8 players play at least 20 percent of the team’s defensive snaps en route to their first Super Bowl victory. Beau Allen played 40 percent. Curry played 56 percent. Mitch Unrein played 37 percent of snaps for the Bears last season. The Bucs also had eight players play at least 20 percent of their snaps, but with Spence and Smith and Ayers’ injures Ryan Russell played 40 percent and Will Clarke 30 percent. They’re good players, but that’s not ideal, nor can I imagine what the Bucs’ staff had in mind to start 2017. The Bucs’ depth chart now may look something like this:
Two-gapping 5tech/Strongside Edge: Vinny Curry(?), Will Gholston, Mitch Unrein
One-gapping 3tech DT: Gerald McCoy, Mitch Unrein(?)/Clinton McDonald (will he be re-signed?)
Two-gapping 1tech/Nose Tackle: Clinton McDonald(?), Beau Allen, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, DaVonte Lambert
One-gapping Weakside Edge: Noah Spence, Vinny Curry(?), Ryan Russell, Will Clarke
If Tampa Bay is going to compete for a playoff spot in 2018, the pass rush must still get fixed; the Bucs shouldn’t be done and will likely take an edge rusher in the first round of the draft. The thing about a pass rush is it isn’t always about sacks. Lost yardage is great and can end a drive, but when a quarterback is pressured only three things can happen and two of them are bad for the offense. Curry should create a ton of pressures. Allen and Unrein should eat blocks. Based on the personnel Tampa has now and Mike Smith’s desire to be multiple, don’t be surprised if both Bradley Chubb and Harold Landry are considered at 7th overall on April 26.