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Welcome To A New Era Of Defense In Tampa Bay

The Bucs will have a radically new - and modern - scheme this season and possibly for the foreseeable future.

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New York Jets v New England Patriots
Todd Bowles is brining a Belichickian mentality to Tampa Bay.
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

This is the introduction to a multi-part series that will dive into the various schemes, disguises, and other elements Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will employ in 2019. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more.

Jon: You could argue that Tampa Bay’s legacy is built on defense. Their first Hall of Fame player was Lee Roy Selmon, a defensive end. The Bucs rode a historically good defense to their first Super Bowl championship, and the players from that defense are now legends in their own right, with some of them also in the Hall.

But the defenses in Tampa Bay haven’t been good lately. In fact, they’ve been awful. They haven’t had a top ten defense since 2013. The closest they’ve come recently was in 2016, when they were 13th. And even that was a bit of a mirage, as an unsustainable interception rate provided cover for a defense that was still among the league’s worst in giving up yards.

One of the big reasons for the lackluster defense, besides an arguable lack of talent, is the evolution of the game. The Spread has finally reached the NFL. It started slowly at first, in an upwards trickle from the college game over a decade ago, but after the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018 the floodgates opened. Everyone has spread concepts in their playbook now. The Kansas City Chiefs have been running a completely “college” offense. Even the Buccaneers last year had spread concepts sprinkled in.

What is the spread, though? To put it simply, the spread attempts to get the ball to dynamic skill players in the negative space of the defense - the holes in the coverage. That’s what all defenses try to do, but the spread does this by creating easier and quicker reads and throws for the quarterback, while still designed to create opportunity for skill players to make big plays.

Instead of the thousands of static plays in the old West Coast playbooks of Bill Walsh that all had to be learned, the Spread has a handful of concepts, sometimes multiple ones packaged into a single play, it can run from a multitude of formations and personnel groups with runs and play-action passes and the like all designed to appear the same to the defense. Then it is often repped over and over to perfection and sometimes run as quickly as possible to force defenses into mistakes and coverage busts. Many of those concepts resemble ones you’d find in basketball. It looks to make things as simple as possible for the offense (like reading just a single defensive player instead of the whole field) while still making it difficult and complex for the defense to figure out and stop. Defenses in turn have adopted many of the same principles.

So how do you stop the Spread? Lovie Smith had a spot-dropping zone coverage that mostly played a soft Cover 2 shell that tried to keep everything in front of them. But when they faced teams with spread concepts, like the Tennessee Titans in the opening game of the 2015 season, they were woefully unprepared. Second-level RPOs destroyed Smith’s scheme as it put linebackers in conflict and targeted the open holes in the coverage. It turned into a rout.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Marcus Mariota and the Titans throttled the Bucs in 2015.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith adopted a similar soft coverage don’t-give-up-the-big-play philosophy, but with Cover 3 and Cover 4/Quarters as his base. He fared even worse than Lovie. The game against Chicago last season, a 48-10 brutalization, was reminiscent of Lovie’s 42-14 Titans game. His scheme had checks for every scenario an offense could throw at it, but the secondary didn’t communicate and the Bucs either didn’t have the talent or the coaching staff couldn’t teach the system; likely a little bit of both. After Smith was fired the scheme was “dumbed down” to make it easier and faster for the players to execute. Smith may have lacked a true or comprehensive vision for the Bucs’ defense and the types of players he wanted in each position, but he did want to build the defense from the inside-out, starting with interior defensive linemen.

Both coaches saw their antiquated and over-matched units repeatedly torched by modern offenses, and they never adapted. If I were building a defense, I’d build it from the back to the front.

In steps new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. So what is Bowles’ philosophy? What can Bucs fans expect to see from their new defense in the fall? If we had to choose one word, it would be aggressive. Bowles wants to be as aggressive as possible. But another just as important tenet shines through - his defenses are positionless. As offenses began to put more skill position players on the field they also began to collect tweeners - WR/TE and WR/RB hybrids (even TE/FB). In response, defenses have done the same. Linebacker/edge rushers, cornerback/safeties, safety/linebackers. To stop athletes in space you need your own versatile athletes that can play in space, that are big enough to stop the run but also have the athleticism to run and cover.

Not to beat a dead horse, but that’s probably why the Bucs should have taken Derwin James in last year’s draft. He’s perfectly made for this era of football. He can rush the passer off the edge, drop into coverage, line up at nickel, play the box safety role or as the overhang defender, or even single-high in a pinch. The game is about matchups, and he can match up with just about anyone, lined up just about anywhere.

Bowles appears to understand this. Being positionless also means Bowles’ scheme can be extremely multiple. He can and does mix and match different personnel in the same role (say, switching out a linebacker for a third safety), allowing him to run the same calls and blitz packages from different looks and alignments. He will let a player do what they do best. All of that also helps with disguise. He loves to play man coverage, especially on the outside, but he does mix in some zone-matching too, especially in the middle of the field (MOF). Defenses coordinated by Bowles often lead or nearly lead the league in blitzes, as pointed out by Jenna Laine:

From 2015 to 2018, Bowles’ Jets blitzed 936 of 2,501 dropbacks (37.4 percent), second most in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those blitzes resulted in 125 quarterback hits and 26 interceptions, ranking third most and second most, respectively, of any team when blitzing.

When he was the defensive coordinator of the Cardinals from 2013 to 2014, Bowles’ defense blitzed 620 of 1,333 dropbacks (46.5 percent), which was the most in the NFL. Quarterbacks were contacted on 92 of those dropbacks and threw 17 interceptions, both numbers more than any other team in the league.

Over the last three seasons the Bucs only blitzed about 23 percent of the time, probably because they got burned worse when they did blitz. Bowles especially likes blitzing on first downs and off the weak side. But he’s creative with his blitzes and stunt games, and because they disguise what they’re doing (who’s rushing, and in what gap, and who’s dropping) he often gets free rushers at the quarterback. One problem the Bucs have often had is they don’t have the players to win their 1v1 matchups, and they weren’t creative enough to manufacture a rush. So, far too often you saw Bucs defensive linemen get stoned at the line of scrimmage off the snap. It is probably also why the Bucs made inside linebacker Devin White the 5th overall pick in the draft. Especially with Jason Pierre-Paul’s status up in the air, the Bucs will be sending White early and often.

NFL: NFL Draft
Devin White will be a crucial piece to the defense in 2019.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The scheme places a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on its cornerbacks. Bowles likes to use them in press man alignments, though he’ll also have them play off-man at times. They need to be big, long, and can run, as they are often left on islands in coverage. I believe that is probably the biggest reason why the Bucs targeted multiple defensive backs in the draft.

At its core, it is a single-gap system, so the hybrid-gapping from Mike Smith is gone, except for the occasional play. Don’t let the 3-4 label fool you. The Bucs won’t be two-gapping like in traditional 3-4s. The DL aren’t there to eat blocks. The Bucs might have only three down linemen on most snaps (and sometimes just two) but they could easily be lined up just like how a 4-3 defense would be. It’s just that one edge rusher from an outside linebacker spot is standing up where a defensive end is normally found with their hand in the dirt. It looks to create penetration in the backfield just like any other traditional 4-3 system. There is still a defensive tackle often lined up as a 3-tech in this defense.

It’s also a big deal that Bowles will build his scheme around the talent he has, whatever he has. Not a lot of good edge rushers? Bowles will put more safeties on the field, and blitz. He will also switch his scheme up from week to week if not in-game. Playing a run-heavy team this Sunday? Bowles will come out and play with four down linemen the whole game, and then go back to three the following week. If his personnel dictates it he will play with four down linemen the whole year. Because of Mike Smith the Bucs already have a mix of traditional 3-4 and 4-3 players, but some of their roles will change. Vea won’t be asked to eat up blockers anymore as a nose tackle. And while he still may line up in a nose tackle’s 0 or 1 tech alignment, he’ll be asked to get upfield in the quarterback’s lap just like everyone else.

This isn’t all to say that Bowles will be a sure-fire success. Just that Bowles understands the way things are, and how to build a defense, especially in today’s game. He understands being scheme flexible, getting talented versatile players, and doing his best to marry the scheme to the personnel. And that’s a lot more than the last guys could say.

Evan: Versatility. Adjustments. Blitzes. Disguise. Adaptability.

All of these words have been absent when discussing the Bucs’ defense over the past two decades. The infamous Tampa 2 that helped them win a Super Bowl is no longer a defensive scheme that can be relied upon in today’s NFL. Dropping up to seven into coverage and relying on a four-man pass rush simply doesn’t get the job done like it once did.

What you have to love about this defense, like Jon mentioned, is the fact that it won’t be the same type of defense from week to week. Bowles will take a page from the Book of Belichick and have his defense adapt to whatever offense the Bucs play that week.

Frankly, that’s what the Bucs must do this year if they want to be effective on defense. There is not enough experience and depth for this team to remain stagnant scheme-wise.

But let’s get on to Bowles’ defense. For context’s sake, let’s take a look at his 2014 season with the Arizona Cardinals, when he was voted the first-ever AP Assistant Coach of the Year.

According to Football Outsiders, Bowles’ defense was seventh overall in DVOA against the sixth-hardest offensive schedule in the NFL.

And this was without players such as Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby, and Daryl Washington - three key players that helped the Cardinals finish second in defensive DVOA in 2013.

Carolina Panthers v Arizona Cardinals
Bowles found a way to overcome Daryl Washington’s suspension.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona’s defense was hit hard with injuries that season, but they still managed to be one of the best units in the NFL.

The Cardinals finished 24th in the league with 35 sacks that year, but Bowles’ scheme and disguise still gave quarterbacks fits. This was evidenced by the Cardinals finishing just outside of the top-10 when it came to quarterback rating allowed.

He was still able to find ways to scheme around the players he had, putting them in the best position possible to compete, which is the complete opposite of the Lovie/Mike Smith regimes over the past few years.

Take a look at Lavonte David, the Bucs’ senior defensive player now that Gerald McCoy is gone.

David had 13 sacks in his first three years because believe it or not, Lovie Smith knew that he can get after the quarterback. When Mike Smith was brought on, David racked up just eight sacks - including a goose egg season in 2017 - in three seasons under Mike Smith.

(side note: David finished with 3.5 sacks in 2018, but all of those came after Smith was fired)

16 Cardinals finished with at least one sack in 2014. The Bucs haven’t had anywhere close to that type of production from that many players, eclipsing a dozen players with sacks just twice since 2010.

This is a big deal because as we all know, Tampa Bay will be without its leading sack master from 2018 in Jason Pierre-Paul for a good portion of the season. Players are going to have to step up to fill the void and it’ll be up to Bowles to make it happen.

The misuse of players will change under Bowles. He has shown that he know how to use his players correctly and won’t attempt to fit any square pegs in round holes.

And with the addition of Ndamukong Suh, the defense should be better.

Suh will bring more versatility to the defensive line than McCoy offered. While McCoy is a better pass rusher at this point in his career, Suh will allow players like Vita Vea, Devin White, and David to create havoc all over the field, which is something that McCoy wouldn’t have been able to do.

McCoy may be the better player at this point in his career, but Suh is the better fit.

Deone Bucannon is also another player to look out for. I mean, hell, we as may as well go ahead and start learning every defensive player’s name now!

Despite the challenges ahead, it’s an exciting time to be a Buccaneers fan when it comes to this new era of defense.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store.