"Anyone can coach the Cover 2... There's a lot of guys who can draw it up on a chalkboard.... But can I coach it? Can I connect with the players? Can I have them buy in to a certain system? That's the thing with Lovie. Is that when you play under him, you buy into what he's selling. You always do."
With Lovie Smith's return to Tampa, most of the narratives about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense revolve around the Tampa 2 and the Cover 2. Does that mean Buccaneer fans should just expect the same defense we saw during the Bucs' glory days just over a decade ago?
Not quite, says Matt Bowen, who played under Lovie Smith with the St. Louis Rams.
More Than Just Tampa 2
"To call them a Cover 2 defense, I just don't agree with that anymore."
Those were Bowen's words to me as we discussed the narratives surrounding the still slightly mysterious defense in Tampa. Well, mysterious to those who have never played for Smith.
Bowen, who played under Lovie in St. Louis and covered him as a writer for the Chicago Tribune, said that Smith's defense isn't complicated or complex, like you might see from Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan.
It's a one-gap system that features Cover 2, along with Cover 1, Cover 3, and a coverage he referred to as Under 10. (He goes into detail on Under 10 in this article, where he also provides lots of great information on the 4-3 front in general, a must-read for Bucs fans.)
But of those multiple coverages that Bowen considers integral to a Lovie Smith defense, only one uses a two-deep setup. So not only does Smith not base his defense solely around the Tampa 2 or even the Cover 2, named for their use of two deep safeties, he often uses defenses with one or three deep safeties.
The defense has become more multiple, but still maintain's Smith's identity.
Take, for instance, the very first play on defense of his final season in Chicago. Going up against Andrew Luck and the Colts, Smith's defense trotted out against a heavy formation with a single-high safety look.
Chris Conte is the only deep safety, and he's shaded toward the only wide receiver on the field. Major Wright has walked up to the weak side of the play, similar to the Under 10 coverage Bowen mentioned in his article.
Bowen seemed to like the Under 10 call, and I could sense his eagerness to get back on the field as he described getting to cover backside runs that cut back into the A-gap on the weak side. It's seems like he's not alone.
Major Wright also loves to get downhill and cover the run, and that's what he tries to do on this play. The only problem? It's play action. Wright gets sucked up into the play, and the Colts are able to sneak a tight end out past him.
Lance Briggs, assuming the role Lavonte David will hold in Tampa, was able to cover for Wright and make the stop before a big gain, but the result of the play isn't what we're after here. It's the call.
The first play of the first game of the season, and the "Tampa 2" coach comes out with a single-high safety and runs Under 10.
The first third down of the game for the Chicago Defense would bring about a similar break from the expected "Lovie Smith" defense.
On third and short, against an empty backfield, the Bears once again have only one safety back deep. The remaining defensive backs are up in tight coverage, hoping to stop the Colts from picking up the few yards needed for a first down.
Brian Urlacher stayed in a short zone and helped his defensive backs and Briggs cover the handful of players who would cross the middle of the field on the play, and the Bears succeeded in getting the Colts off the field.
But that raises another question. We've mentioned Briggs and David, and we've now mentioned Urlacher. But what about his Tampa counterpart, Mason Foster? What about the rest of the personnel in Tampa? Are they ready to run Lovie Smith's defense?
More Than Enough Talent
According to Bowen, the Buccaneers definitely have the right players for what Smith is looking to do. But that didn't come without a few words of caution.
"Look at the Dallas Cowboys," he told me, and reminded that they play the same defensive scheme under Monte Kiffin. But they don't have the players, and according to Bowen, that's why they struggled last year and will struggle again this year. That's not the case in Tampa.
The Bucs have Lavonte David at weakside linebacker, who Bowen says will have a better year in 2014 than he did in 2013, even if the numbers won't prove it. David has the skill-set that Lovie Smith loves in a WILL backer. It allows him to "cheat", as Bowen calls it.
He recalls a specific moment when his Redskins were playing the Buccaneers, and Patrick Ramsey dropped back to pass. The defense on the sideline could see Derrick Brooks waiting "in the weeds" on the back side of the play, and of course, Ramsey threw it right to him. Brooks would take that pass back for a score to cap a resounding Buccaneer victory.
David, he says, can do all of those same things.
But of course, there's more talent on the Tampa Bay defense that's well suited for Lovie's defense. Bowen believes that Mason Foster does have what it takes to play the MIKE role for the Tampa defense, while also mentioning that Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks are good scheme fits at corner.
"Corners are vital in the Tampa 2" according to Bowen, who mentioned that they don't just jam and sit in a short zone in the Bucs' famous defense. Instead, they bump and sink, forcing quarterbacks to have to throw the ball over the top, rather than having a cushion between the corner and the safety.
And of course, as we've already seen, Lovie Smith's defensive backs don't just play Tampa 2, so Banks and Verner will be called upon to play in other coverages and schemes as well. The same goes for the safeties, who didn't have the best showing last year.
Bowen notes that the Bucs' safeties blew coverages last season, something Bucs fans will remember with slightly raised blood pressure. But he said that the failures of the deep men in Greg Schiano's defense were due to technique, not talent.
More Than Just Drawing It On a Chalkboard
Bowen, like most former NFL players, could draw up the Tampa 2, Cover 2, or any other number of defenses on a chalkboard, and explain the various keys and gaps players are responsible for in any given situation. But that's not what makes Smith a good coach.
And it was what perpetuated the failures last season under Greg Schiano. Matt brought up the DeSean Jackson touchdown last season against Dashon Goldson as an example, so let's go to the tape to see what he means.
Here you see the play at the snap, as Barron has walked down on the strong side, where there are only tight ends and backs to contend with. Goldson is deep on the weak side, where he (along with Darrelle Revis and Lavonte David) will be covering the two Eagle receivers.
But it's the combination of the tight ends keeping Barron short, and poor technique from Goldson, which lead to the breakdown.
Barron is occupied by the tight end, while Goldson is holding outside leverage against the speedy Jackson. Had Goldson kept the play in front of him and kept inside leverage, he would have funneled Jackson to his help (Revis and David) on the weak side of the field.
But instead, by holding outside leverage, it becomes a footrace to the open space behind Barron, a race that Goldson is never going to win.
This will change under Smith, according to Bowen. The scheme isn't incredibly complex and the focus is on getting 11 guys who know their roles, and who work together.
"The scheme doesn't work with 10 guys and a Deion Sanders," Bowen told me. Every player knows what he's supposed to do, and where his help will be. This means each guy can slow down and play under control, and avoid technique errors like the one we see above.
Bowen says that the confidence of playing in a Lovie Smith defense and knowing your reads, keys, and help on every snap can slow the game down and help avoid major mistakes. Players won't overrun the ball or overplay a route as often, tackling will be more sound and safe, and plays will be kept short and shut down before they turn into big moments.
It's Not Just The Scheme, It's How It's Coached
Remember the Patrick Ramsey/Derrick Brooks scenario I referenced above? That feeds into another important aspect of the Lovie Smith defense that Bowen mentioned.
The Cover 2 and Tampa 2 are well-known defenses. Almost anyone could draw it up on a chalk board. But the way that Derrick Brooks would cheat and move to make big plays against the pass, that's what Smith teaches that sets his defense apart..
Guys don't "cover grass" in an ideal Lovie Smith defense. The weakside linebacker, for instance, has a certain "landmark" to get to in Cover 2 or Cover 3, but for a Lovie Smith linebacker, that's only the beginning.
If the play starts with the quarterback looking to the strong side of the formation for his progressions, and the linebacker reads this, he'll cheat to the inside and move to where he can make a play. "Lovie lets you move with the quarterback," is how Bowen described it.
This is exactly what happened in his example earlier, when an unsuspecting Ramsey threw the ball right to Brooks, who knew that the quarterback wouldn't expect him to have crept into position to make the play.
Why can linebackers (and even safeties) get away with this in Smith's defenses? The pressure from the front four, says Bowen. "The quarterback isn't gonna have time to look at number one, look at number two, and come all the way back to number three on the back side without getting a helmet under his chin." That's why adding Michael Johnson, and having Gerald McCoy already on the roster will be key for the Tampa Bay defense.
But the coaching doesn't just impact the play of the WILL backer and the safeties. There are things that Smith coaches to every player that impact how his teams play.
You Run, or You Don't Play
According to Bowen, every NFL defense meets and talks about how they want to get turnovers. But Lovie Smith defenses are different. Turning the ball over, and scoring off of those turnovers, is a part of everything the team does in practice.
Bowen explained this best in an article for the Chicago Tribune, when he said "It doesn't matter if a ball falls off the back of an equipment truck," because someone from the Bears would scoop it up and score.
That means running, and a lot of it. Because picking up a loose football and returning it isn't a one-man job for Smith's teams. Every time a ball hits the turf, one man picks it up, while the rest of the team start to form a blocking convoy and set up for a score. And if you don't? You don't play, Bowen said.
Even walkthroughs are spent with running backs facing active-handed defenders trying to strip the ball away and score. Every moment of a Buccaneer practice this summer will be focused on scoring on defense. It's a part of the defensive DNA for Smith and his teams.
So why do players buy into this? Because everyone has a chance to make a play in Lovie's scheme. According to Bowen, on any given third down, any player might be the one to make a big play and change the course of the game. It's 11 players working together and filling their gaps, covering their ground, and using the right techniques that makes the Lovie Smith defense so well-respected and unique.
We saw this in action for the Bears in the same game against the Colts I referenced earlier. Let's go back to the tape.
The Bears are in the red zone, a place where Bowen told me we're likely to see Cover 2. But instead, Chicago has to account for a spread formation from the Colts, and is in a single-high set.
That single-high safety is none other than Chris Conte, who is not as talented or capable as either of the Buccaneers' current starters at safety. But that doesn't matter. This is a Lovie Smith defense. And this was his time to shine.
Conte has his eyes on Andrew Luck, and sees that he's looking to the receivers on his side of the field. The corners on that side know that they have Conte for help. Things are working perfectly.
(Sorry for the blurry image, 2012 games don't have HD video for coaches film.)
Conte is in the right position for a tipped pass and doesn't miss his opportunity. The tight coverage at the line allowed no room for error for Luck, and his pass wasn't good enough to avoid the hand of a Chicago defender. Conte is in the right spot to benefit from this deflected pass, but the play doesn't end there.
For the Lovie Smith defense, it's just begun.
As soon as Conte gets the ball, a convoy of blockers is set up and he's trying to score. Instead of getting the ball at the 20, the Bears get a healthy return and wind up closer to midfield, because the defense becomes offense and essentially runs the football version of the fast break. Defensive backs and linemen alike run to the numbers and create a hedge for the ballcarrier to use on his return.
What Makes It All Work?
The Lovie Smith defense is an interesting combination of safety and aggression. The coverages aren't in-your-face and there's not a ton of aggressive blitzing and over-the-top stunting. But there's still a hunter's mentality, and an all-out assault on the football.
The backbone of the defense is denying the offense what it wants. Bowen says that, in theory, an offense could throw 10 passes into the flat and move the ball down the field against a Lovie Smith defense. But quarterbacks and offensive coordinators don't do that.
The former defender told me that offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are too impatient and proud to just check down on every play, and the NFL game is too difficult to reliably move the ball on 10-12 play drives without penalties, turnovers and mistakes.
So teams are forced to take a chance down the field, and that's where the seemingly passive defense gets aggressive. Defensive backs know when they can drive on a route, linebackers are always looking to get their hands on the ball, and linemen are hunting for the quarterback, and won't give him time to look for any deep routes.
"He knows what's gonna win and what's gonna lose," said Bowen about Smith. Slant routes and short passes can "beat" a Lovie Smith defense, but those routes don't win games. Letting deep passes, like the one seen above from the Eagles, can win and lose games, and that's what the Lovie Smith defense seeks to eliminate.
It's a curious combination of "bend, don't break" and an untamable desire to get the football and score on defense that was the hallmark of the 2002 Buccaneers, and will return under Smith.
And that's not just my opinion, it's Bowen's as well. He wouldn't guarantee that every single player would live up to expectations, but he said that the talent is there, and that Smith's system will fix the issues Bucs fans saw from Greg Schiano's defense last season.
Adding Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner, and Clinton McDonald has set the Buccaneers up with a defense that matches what Smith wants, Bowen said. The fact that the Buccaneers didn't draft any defensive players proves that. And while Bowen had some questions left unanswered about what the Tampa offense would look like, he was very confidence in a return to late 1990's, early 2000's form on defense.
"I don't know what's gonna happen on offense, no one does, but defensively they're set up to produce," Bowen concluded.
So even though some of the calls and coverages will be different, the mentality and foundation is the same. There might not be as much Tampa 2 as we saw at the turn of the millennium, and there might be more man-to-man coverage than we ever witnessed from a Monte Kiffin defense, but the underlying principles remain the same. Lovie said as much when he was hired:
"There’s a certain brand of football that you expected from us. You knew we’d be relentless, we would play hard, physical, but there was a brand of football that you did get from us each week.... We have gotten away from that a little bit, and it is time, as we go to the future, for us to become a relevant team again."
And while no one is quite sure what to expect from the offense, we can all expect that Lovie Smith's Tampa Bay defense will be very relevant in 2014 and beyond.
(Many thanks to Matt Bowen for his time and contributions to this article. You can find Matt on Twitter at @MattBowen41.)
Photo credit: Kim Klement, David Manning, USA Today Sports.