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NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers

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The Bucs and Man Coverage: A tale of two halves in 2019

Todd Bowles loves him some man coverage.

The Bucs’ defense improved as the year went on.
| Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tampa Bay’s reputation/legacy is built on defense, so it’s easy to see why people are excited when it comes to the defense’s potential in 2020.

Todd Bowles enters his second year as defensive coordinator and looks to build upon a solid first season that saw one of 2018’s worst defensive units turn into a top-5 unit —per Football Outsiders— by the end of the 2019 season.

One reason for the improvement is Bowles’ aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme. He loves to pressure quarterbacks in a variety of ways while allowing his corners to man up against their assignments. It’s a much different approach than what the Bucs ran under Mike Smith the last few years.

NFL: AUG 16 Preseason - Dolphins at Buccaneers
Todd Bowles’ defense is going to play a large role in the Bucs’ success in 2020.
Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowles’ defensive philosophy is very similar to Bruce Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” offensive philosophy. He loves to blitz and he does it a lot. Per Pro Football Reference, the Bucs were second in the NFL when it came to blitzing the quarterback, sending five or more guys on 43.4% of defensive plays in 2019.

While blitzing can be very effective, there’s a caveat that comes with sending extra guys after the quarterback: If you don’t get to the quarterback, then you’re in trouble. That’s because your coverage players are often left on an island with their assignment and even the best corners in the NFL last so long. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, then it can spell disaster.

When corners match up 1v1 with their assignments, it’s called man coverage. Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2 Man (Cover 5) are probably the three most popular types of man coverage. This type of coverage is widely considered as the most effective form of coverage because offenses naturally have a more difficult time moving the ball through the air when throwing against it. Per Sports Info Solutions, 21 of 32 passing offenses registered a positive EPA against zone coverage while only 11 of 32 registered a positive EPA against man in 2019.

So why do only two teams (Lions and Patriots) run man on more than 50% of coverage snaps and why is the league average only around 30%? Well, as I mentioned, the scheme demands a lot out of your defense, especially your corners. They have to be on their best game at all times and most teams don’t have the guys to run man as much as they’d like.

“Some people don’t understand the kind of stress and pressure we put on our corners,” Bowles admitted way back when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. His secondary succumbed to the stress during the first seven weeks of the 2019 season, but showed a ton of improvement over the second half of the season. However, all of the credit shouldn’t go to the secondary. A lot of it should also go to the Bucs’ pass rush, which led the league in sacks (34) from Week 8-17.

This circles back to what the Bucs like do to on defense. They like to blitz and they like to run man. Per SIS, opponents attempted 248 passes when the Bucs ran Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2 Man in 2019, which was the fourth-most in the NFL. Opposing offenses threw the ball 664 times against the Bucs, so that means around 37% of opposing pass attempts were when the defense was in man coverage, which was the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL. The Bucs had moderate success, allowing -.005 EPA per attempt, which was good for 17th.

NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers
Jamel Dean showed some major flashes in 2019.
Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But moderate success wasn’t the case during the first half of the season. As I mentioned earlier, the secondary struggled early on, and that was especially true when in man coverage. Through the first seven weeks of the 2019 season, the Bucs fielded a 20th-ranked secondary that allowed .057 EPA per attempt. However, it wasn’t just the secondary. The pass rush didn’t help either.

The Bucs registered .09 EPA per attempt when rushing the passer in man coverage, which was 22nd. They managed just three sacks —for context, the Patriots were first in the NFL with 19— and a 25.2% pressure rate (25th and 30th, respectively).

But things changed after the bye week. Jason Pierre-Paul returned to the lineup and the Bucs’ pass rush went on a tear over the final 10 games of the season.

JPP finished fourth in the league in sacks (8.5) and tied for seventh in total pressures (44) from Week 8-17. Granted, his pressure percentage wasn’t that great at 13.5% (good for 35th), but no other defender rushed the quarterback more than JPP during those weeks. He went after opposing signal callers 337 times. It was 27 more times than Chandler Jones, who was second in terms of pass rush snaps. To put the drop-off between JPP’s and Jones’ snaps —and the rest of the top 25’s snaps— into context, the No. 2-No. 7 spots are separated by a total of 26 snaps and the No. 8-No. 24 spots are separated by a total of 24 snaps.

Sidenote: Don’t discount JPP’s return and the effect it had on the pass rush. His presence forced teams to take the focus off of Shaquil Barrett and freed up other defenders to make plays. Barrett had nine of the team’s 13 sacks through the first six games. At that time, the other four were spread among four other players and Carl Nassib had the second-most sacks on the team with just two. Six more players joined the fold once JPP returned and the Bucs finished with the seventh-highest pressure percentage (in all coverage) in the league over the final 10 games.

From Week 8-17, the Bucs’ pass rush registered 14 sacks (1st) and a 35.4% pressure rate (17th) when rushing the passer in man coverage. Coincidentally Naturally Well, just so you have it, the secondary’s numbers increased, too. It allowed -.051 EPA per attempt, which was nearly a whole point better than what it allowed during the first seven weeks!

You can see the difference in play as the year went on.

This is Week 3 against the Giants. The Bucs blitz on 1st and 10 but neither the pass rush nor the secondary can get the job done. Daniel Jones isn’t pressured as planned while Lavonte David and Jordan Whitehead can’t avoid the pick created by the play call.

Here’s an example of where the secondary doesn’t hold up on its end of the bargain. The Bucs send six guys, but the Panthers leave eight (!!) in to block, so you can’t really blame the pass rush for not doing its job.

The secondary is at an automatic advantage since it has three extra defenders, but Curtis Samuel beats Carlton Davis III off the line of scrimmage and it’s no contest. The mistake allows Kyle Allen to get rid of the ball as the pocket starts to collapse.

Barrett and the pass rush let down the defense on this rep. I will cut them a bit of slack because the blocking scheme —and the play in general— is top-notch, but Barrett gets stood up by Tre’Quan Smith, which is something that simply shouldn’t happen. The entire pass rush is stood up on this play and it allows Teddy Bridgewater to complete a deep pass to Michael Thomas.

Davis has pretty good coverage on this play, but Bridgewater is so comfortable that he’s allowed the opportunity to make the perfect throw and beat the coverage. If Barrett (or anyone else for that matter) can just disrupt this play, then the odds are this completion doesn’t happen.

As I mentioned earlier, things really started to change when JPP came back into the lineup. His presence allows Bowles to move his players around and this play is a perfect example of that. Nassib wrecks rookie right guard Nate Davis and causes Ryan Tannehill to step into the waiting arms of Barrett. The beauty of this play is that it’s a four-man rush. The secondary also holds up, as well.

Here’s the kicker: Nassib played just 14 snaps through the first four games on the inside of the defensive line, but Bowles lined him up inside 8 times in this matchup alone. Having players like JPP in the fold allows other players to make contributions in different fashions, which is heaven for a coordinator like Bowles.

Remember the earlier example where the Panthers max protected and the secondary blew its coverage? Well, it’s different this time around.

The coverage holds up long enough for the Bucs’ blitz to get to Matt Ryan. You can see Ryan going through his reads, starting with Olamide Zaccheaus out of the right slot, but Lavonte David drops into the hook once he sees the tight end stay in to block. That covers up Zaccheaus long enough for Adams to pick him up as he heads down the seam.

Ryan then tries to look for Austin Hooper, but he’s covered up by Davis. By this time, the pocket has collapsed and Barrett takes Ryan down for the sack.

It’s likely a completed pass Adams doesn’t pick up Zaccheaus. It’s a good play on Adams’ part and you can see how efficiently he processes the read on this play.

The Colts try to take advantage of the Bucs’ aggressive defense by running play action on this play. The Bucs blitz and Barrett blows by new teammate Joe Haeg and takes down Jacoby Brissett.

But look at the coverage by the secondary. Davis owns Pascal on the underneath route. Sean Murphy-Bunting stays with his man (and has help over the top) and Whitehead catches a break when Jack Doyle slips coming out of his break, even though he had good position to begin with.

How will this translate into 2020? Hopefully the team can continue its development in man coverage, because that will certainly help take the defense to the next level.

No matter how you shake it, the future is bright for Tampa Bay’s defense.

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