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Examining The Guts Of Todd Bowles’ Defense

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It’s time to take a look at what will happen on all three levels of the defense.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Minicamp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second part of our introduction to Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense. In this piece, we will break down the concept behind each position group and explain how Bowles may intend to utilize his players. You can check out the introduction to Bowles’ defense here.


The Secondary

As we talked about in the opening article a few weeks ago, Todd Bowles looks to marry great pass coverage with an aggressive front. Essentially, get big, long, fast guys that can cover 1-on-1 on the back end while up front you try to disguise and blitz to force the quarterback’s hand as quickly as possible. Everything starts with the back end. Here’s a look at how it all works together:

But how do the Bucs get from awful to that?

In 2014 as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals under Bruce Arians, Bowles carried nine defensive backs, including Antonio Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Justin Bethel, Tyrann Mathieu, and new Buccaneer Deone Bucannon, then a rookie. In total, five safeties and four cornerbacks, though Bucannon is something of a safety/linebacker hybrid and Mathieu a corner/safety hybrid.

Last season the Bucs carried eleven defensive backs, broken up into eight cornerbacks and three safeties. Despite having eight corners on the roster, only two measured at or over 6’0 — rookie Carlton Davis and Josh Shaw, who played just 6.5 percent of the defensive snaps and is no longer on the team.

In contrast, three of Arizona’s four corners that year (and two of their safeties) were at least 6’0. Tampa Bay rookie cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean are 6’0 and 6’2, respectively, effectively tripling the number of corners on the roster that fit the type of player Bowles wants needs to run his scheme. Bucannon, who was added to the Bucs’ 2019 roster because of his familiarity with Bowles’ scheme, was one of the Arizona safeties over 6’0. Since the Bucs let Andrew Adams walk in free agency earlier this year that leaves Bucannon and Isaiah Johnson as the two rostered safeties over 6’0. So, in one offseason this new staff essentially went from two starting DBs over 6’0 to potentially five.

Further, Cromartie, Peterson, and safety Rashad Johnson played over 90% of Arizona’s defensive snaps that year. The Bucs had eight defensive backs play at least 35 percent of the snaps last season, but none more than Brent Grimes, who played 75.5 percent despite refusing to do what the coaches asked and quitting on the team. Yikes. Besides Davis, what does that say about the other guys on the roster?

I think we can expect this staff to look for guys they can consistently rely on, and play them a lot. While Davis looks like a front-runner for one of the outside cornerback spots, the two rookies will battle it out with the much-maligned Vernon Hargreaves III for the other two starting cornerback spots. If Hargreaves can resurrect his career that would give Tampa Bay good depth in the secondary. It will be interesting to see how much the Bucs rotate their defensive backs this season.

Central Michigan v Michigan State
Murphy-Bunting might be a key player for a new-look Buccaneer defense this fall.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Besides the type of players a coach wants, one of the first things a coach has to choose is whether they want to be a middle of the field open (MOFO) defense or a middle of the field closed (MOFC). A Cover 2 look with deep two safeties splitting the field is an example of a MOFO look, while Cover 3 or Cover 1 would be a MOFC look. This can be as a base scheme, like the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom who played exclusively Cover 3 with Earl Thomas as the single-high safety, or even switching up play-to-play or per opponent. This is important because one of the first keys a quarterback reads at the line of scrimmage pre-snap is how many safeties there are and where they’re lined up. It tells a quarterback where they can expect the holes in the coverage to be.

That’s where disguise comes in. Bowles runs a ton of MOFC looks, with Cover 1 man and the like. But he will mix it up a lot.

In 2014 the Dallas Cowboys had the 4th-best offense by DVOA, despite starting Brandon Weeden at quarterback for much of the season. Aside from blitzing, this play has everything you’ll see from a Bowles defense this season: just two linemen with their hands in the dirt but six players at the line of scrimmage, aggressive and tight man coverage down the field, and a disguise by the safeties.

This play ended up going for 40 yards because it was a great play call on 3rd and 10, and shows the pros and cons of Bowles’ scheme. Sometimes when you’re this aggressive, you’re gonna get burned with a big play. But let’s focus on the secondary, because that’s where you’re gonna see the biggest differences this season — it’s a simple thing, but the safeties show single-high (MOFC) like they did for much of this game and bail into a Cover 2 look post-snap (MOFO). The Cardinals still have a 2-on-1 numbers advantage to the boundary at the bottom of the screen, and 4-on-3 at the top to the field side against the trips look. That’s how you cover.

The corners all use a man-turn technique to flip their hips and position themselves between the receivers and the middle of the field and show good positioning right in the receivers hip pocket. Yes, the Cowboys receivers are just running clear-outs for the screen, but the technique here still matters, and I’ll show you why in a second. You can see Deone Bucannon line up with the innermost slot receiver and initially wall him off from the MOF. The Cardinals could line up in this same look and blitz Bucannon off the edge and have the safety come down to cover the slot, or other variations.

Let’s take a look at another play:

Here you see it all against another trips field side look from the offense — an aggressive Cover 1 MOFC look with seven defenders on the line of scrimmage that gets a free rusher at the quarterback, on his blind side no less. The ball lands out of bounds.

Let’s juxtapose those plays with what we saw last season from the Bucs. This is a play from early in the Bears game, against a similar trips-wide to the field side look:

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Almost everyone is open, as the Bears run something of a four vertical look against Cover 3. Grimes has a receiver on both sides of him, essentially 1-on-2 as the underneath defender passes his guy off when he runs past his zone. And of course they turn Taylor Gabriel loose, who is running a post route up the opposite seam from where he started. With the safety, Johnson, and Grimes, it’s basically a 2-on-3 with those three deep routes, while Davis is 1-on-1 with his man. So as Gabriel crosses the field to the other side, Johnson is far away because he drifted to the trips side and doesn’t break back to Gabriel until the ball is thrown. He does show good range though, barely making the tackle on Gabriel and saving the touchdown (for at least four more plays, anyway).

But technically speaking, you can plainly see the difference in what the Cardinals did under Bowles and what the Bucs did under Smith, even from similar MOFC closed looks against trips. Nobody in the secondary really has good positioning except Grimes. There’s no attempt to disguise anything from the Bucs, and they don’t seem to have a good grasp of what their zones are supposed to be, or how they’re supposed to pass receivers off as they go in and out of each other’s zones. There was very little if any communication by the Bucs’ defensive backs when the scheme called for them to switch assignments. By trying not to give up the big play by keeping everything in front of them so they could jump passes for interceptions, the Bucs gave up a ton of big plays and didn’t get any turnovers.

According to current practice reports, the secondary is doing a great job with disguise and communication. You can see that Bowles’ scheme places a tremendous amount of responsibility on the players in coverage. He loves overload blitzes, whether right up the middle or from the weak side. But there’s a ton of man-to-man coverage. Carlton Davis recently had this to say:

“For whatever reason why, the schemes last year just didn’t work, but I feel like this year our players are a lot more comfortable with the schemes we have. Right now, I feel like it fits us better as a defense and our personnel,” he said when asked why he thinks the defense is already better than last year. “Practicing through the spring and even right now in camp, I can tell our guys are a lot more comfortable and that we are a lot more motivated because we are able to be ourselves and play in a scheme that really fits us.”

He went on to say that Bowles will also call plays that match his personnel on the field. This may all seem like common sense stuff, and it is. But it doesn’t always happen.

Making a switch like this starts with the fundamentals, something as simple as how you turn off the snap. And this staff has a lot of teaching to do. But the end result will look drastically different. There’s going to be growing pains, and they’ll give up some big chunk plays, but on a down-to-down basis you should see the Bucs be much better and more aggressive in coverage this season.


The Defensive Line

Tampa Bay’s defensive line has always centered around speed and athleticism. While that’s nothing to be ashamed of, the game has changed to the point where your typical 4-3 defense isn’t as effective as it once was.

The days of the dominant 3-tech are likely gone in Tampa Bay. The drafting of Vita Vea, along with the release of Gerald McCoy and signing of Ndamukong Suh are perfect examples of the incoming shift in personnel.

But that doesn’t mean that the defensive line won’t generate pressure. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Bowles’ defenses have always relied up on interior pressure/penetration and he knows how to make good use of his quicker linemen (see Leonard Williams, Muhammed Wilkerson, Calais Campbell, etc).

Expect a lot of odd alignments and A-gap pressure, two strategies that Bowles loves to employ. Also, expect a lot of beef up front. Bowles’ defensive linemen usually sit right around the 6-foot-4, 300-pound (or more) mark.

Take a look at this play from the Cardinals 2014 game against the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers finished 11th in DVOA that year and have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Philip Rivers.

Bowles has Campbell and Tommy Kelly lined up at the 3-tech (remember how I said those days were gone?) with John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy out wide for the 1-vs-1 matchup.

When the ball is snapped, both Kelly and Campbell attack the A-gap, drawing the interior of the offensive line away from the edge rushers. Linebacker Larry Foote initially looks as if he is about to rush the passer, but dips to cover Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. Foote’s presence confuses the right guard just enough to allow good interior pressure combined with a good rush from Abraham off the left edge.

Rivers has to make a quick decision and completes the pass, but it’s a minimal gain. The interior pressure from Kelly and Campbell doesn’t allow the talented quarterback to step up in the pocket and it also allows the edge rushers to collapse the pocket and force Rivers to take the quick pass.

The best part about the defensive line is that while in the 3-4 alignment, they won’t be asked to two-gap. This will be a one-gap scheme. That allows for more pressure from the defensive line and with Vea and Suh leading the way, the Bucs should be able to rattle opposing quarterbacks pretty often.

The relentless pressure will eventually wear teams down both mentally and physically. On this 3rd-and-7, Bowles decides to send seven rushers against six blockers — something that has not been seen in Tampa Bay recently — and the end result is an interception.

Now, as you can see, Rivers expected Eddie Royal to continue running, but he broke off his route for reasons unknown. Could it have been a result of good scheme in the secondary? It looks like Royal read zone coverage and tried to sit, but Rivers saw man and expected him to keep running the route. We won’t know unless we actually ask one of the players or coaches that were involved, but hey, it’s an interception. Forcing the issue is how you force offenses into mistakes. You can see right away how that’s a much better process than sitting back in soft coverage and trying to jump routes.

There were only two down defensive linemen on this play, but they weren’t responsible for taking on two blockers. Both lined up at the 3T, which created some lanes for the other blitzers to get through. Four rushers were coming from the middle and before Rivers could even set his feet, he was feeling the pressure.

It would’ve been a lot of fun to see how Bowles plans on using Jason Pierre-Paul in this defense. He could put his hand in the dirt, stand up, or even operate on the inside, a la Campbell. Anthony Nelson and Carl Nassib are the two likely players to fill that role in his absence, but at the end of the day, Bowles will put his players in the best position to succeed, so there won’t be much surprise if the three aforementioned players find themselves playing multiple positions all over the field.

Still, you can see all the movement from the front seven pre-snap. That is to disguise who is coming on the blitz and in which gap they are coming through. The only constant is that someone is coming. Bowles may send more blitzers than blockers to guarantee a free rusher. Or he may send 5 v 5, but he’ll try to scheme it in a way that confuses the quarterback and offensive line and their protection calls to still get a free rusher. Gone are the days of the Bucs just hoping their linemen win their one-on-one matchups, despite consistently not doing so.

I had to venture outside of the Chargers game, but the following play represents a good idea of how Bowles will use three rushers on the line of scrimmage. It also tips a hat to how effective Vita Vea can be in this defense.

It’s a simple three-man rush, but with a slight twist to keep Dan Williams in a 1-vs-1 situation. Frostee Rucker, a quicker defensive lineman, is lined up at the 3T with Williams at the nose. Campbell is already going to draw the attention of the left tackle and left guard, considering he’s arguably the best defensive lineman on the team.

But instead of having Rucker take the usual A-gap (or B-gap) approach, Bowles has him step outside and attack the right tackle near the C-gap. Rucker takes a quick step inside that sucks in the guard, but then quickly shifts to the outside, causing the right guard to leave Williams alone with the center.

It might be a subtle thing, but it’s just good coaching and putting your players in position to succeed. Despite rushing just three defenders against five blockers it gave one of the defenders a one-on-one chance. It’s easy to see Vea, Suh, and one the Bucs’ quicker linemen in this scenario. It’d be great to see JPP, but one would think Nassib or Nelson could fill the role for the time being.

Simplicity. It works more than you think in the NFL.


The Linebackers

Now, the last piece of the puzzle — the linebackers. First things first — because this is a one-gap scheme, the linebackers will be responsible for their gap. That gap responsibility might change play-to-play. Bowles might have different names, but in general it looks like former first round pick Devin White will be the “Mike” backer and Lavonte David the “Will” or weakside backer. Together they make up the inside linebackers. That leaves Carl Nassib and Noah Spence, or what would have been JPP, as their outside linebackers, often called the “Sam” and “Rover”. The Sam’s primary responsibility is the run as they will be lined up on the strong-side of the formation with the tight end, while the Rover will be almost a pure pass rusher lined up on the weak side. It’s hard to say at this point who will play which role, and whether Bowles will define their roles as specifically as that.

You have already seen above a lot of what the linebackers will do in this new scheme. They will work in concert with the defensive line and secondary to stunt and confuse the offensive line. Bowles will send David and White in any and every gap. They will drop back in coverage to buzz the hook/curl zones while Bowles sends a safety instead, or even the nickel corner Murphy-Bunting. They will be asked to blitz, cover, and take on blockers and stuff the run. Nassib and Spence will do the same — rush, or drop into coverage with the tight end or running back, often into the flat or the hook/curl zones. Deone Bucannon is a linebacker/safety hybrid. He may blitz off the edge, cover the slot receiver or the tight end, or start deep and run up as the Robber. He’s your Swiss Army knife.

While Bowles’ defenses are positionless and he looks to change up what his players are doing, there might be some staples. A while back Arians referred to Lavonte David as their “stack” linebacker. That generally means that David will be the guy that might often see himself across from an offensive lineman who is climbing to the second level. This position is also often called the “Jack”. David will be asked to stack and shed the lineman’s block and then if he can make the tackle. This is hard to do, as lineman are often much bigger and stronger than linebackers. The purpose of this is to keep the Mike, in this case White, clean and free to make tackles. So it appears that they are planning on scheming the defense around White.

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith tried something somewhat similar in principle, the issue was how he went about it — he would have his defensive linemen eat up blockers via hybrid or two-gapping in order to keep his linebackers clean so they could flow to the ball. But when the linemen failed his linebackers would get swallowed. Kwon Alexander had an issue with taking on offensive linemen, often trying to jump around their block instead of stacking and shedding.

In contrast, everyone under Bowles will be attacking, and the Bucs will have two inside linebackers capable of handling every responsibility asked of them.


The Conclusion

It’s important to remember that with Bowles, and most teams these days, the 3-4 and 4-3 designations are meaningless. Bowles will use three and four down linemen; sometimes even two. Regardless, this is strictly a one-gap attacking defense. A look with three down lineman and four linebackers might be lined up in traditional 4-3 under look. Or any other combination you can think of.

This defense looks complicated, right? Communication will be key. But it’s probably not as complicated as it looks — it just looks that way on purpose to confuse offenses. There’s not an infinite amount of calls, but Bowles will teach it so that he can use any call from any personnel and/or alignment. So you might see the same blitz from heavy personnel with four down linemen and four linebackers, or from a Dime package with just two or three down linemen and eight defensive backs. That means players could have different roles for the same calls because they’ll be lined up in different spots. Simple for defensive players to understand, but hard for offenses to figure out. It’s only difficult for the players in that they have to learn what everyone else around them is doing. But when you know what other players are supposed to be doing, and you’re communicating, that helps eliminate mistakes and coverage busts. We saw enough coverage busts last year to last a lifetime.

We hope this helped shed light on what you will see this fall. Like we said earlier, there will be growing pains. When you live by the blitz you’ll also die by the blitz. The Bucs don’t really have an elite pass rusher. They will give up big plays. But if the defense can stay healthy, they will be much better. And that’s worth getting excited for.