Well, Mike Smith is finally gone and linebackers coach Mark Duffner (aka “Coach Duff”) is the new Buccaneers defensive coordinator. Now the question is, what can he do to turn things around? To answer that question, first you have to identify what’s been going wrong and what the defense is not doing right or not doing well. Then you figure out how to fix those things. It sounds easy enough, right? The problem with Mike Smith was that he refused to admit what those problems were which makes fixing the issues an impossible task. After watching Duff’s first press conference as defensive coordinator on Wednesday, I feel optimistic. It seems as though he knows what the issues are and maybe even has some ideas how to correct them. Now he just needs to get it done.
So what are the issues with Mike Smith’s style of defense? Hmm, where do I start???
It’s not aggressive enough.
It’s too soft.
It’s too predictable.
It’s not physical enough.
It uses too much zone.
It doesn’t blitz enough.
It lacks creativity.
It wasn’t geared towards players strengths.
And it didn’t hold players accountable.
When you add all of those things up with the injuries this unit has already sustained so far this year, you end up with a defense that was on pace statistically to be the worst in NFL history. That is what Duffner is inheriting. So I wanted to break down the major issues facing him with this defense and give my suggestions on how to right them. Let’s get started!
BE MORE AGGRESSIVE!
So what does that mean? There’s a lot that’s included in that simple statement. It means that typically the corners are usually ten yards off and playing some kind of soft Cover 2 or Cover 3 zone. It usually means a basic four man rush by the d-line, with no stunts or twists and not many different looks from the front four. It usually means little or no blitzing by the linebackers, even though Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are both very good at executing them. It’s “safe”. It’s passive. It allows for opposing quarterbacks to stand in the pocket for three to four uninterrupted seconds and pick apart the young, inexperienced secondary. It doesn’t cause them to be uncomfortable back there. Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky was statistically one of the worst QB’s in the league against the blitz going into their game against the Bucs. And do you know how many times Mike Smith called a blitz in that first half? Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Not one blitz. Meanwhile Trubisky, who was averaging less than 200 yards per game and had only thrown 2 touchdowns in the first 3 games, was carving up the Bucs defense to the tune of 19 out of 26 for 354 yards and 6 touchdowns. Fun Fact: It was the first time a Bears QB had thrown for more than 5 touchdowns in 1,005 games. Yep, that’s awesome.
So what’s the answer? To be more aggressive. Maybe even overly aggressive. The Bucs have the personnel on the d-line to play just about any kind of front they want. Stop with all the basic crap. Exotic looks and different fronts is what they need to start doing. The few times they have gone to a more exotic look, JPP has gotten sacks. If it works, then why stop doing it.
More blitzes by linebackers, safeties and corners coming from every direction at any given time. First down, second down, third down…I don’t care when they do it, they just need to do it and do it often. As I said earlier, Kwon and Lavonte have the speed to get into the backfield and either get home with the sack or at least disrupt the play by causing an early throw. Stop holding them back. Turn them loose and let the big dogs eat.
Lastly stop with the soft ass, off zone coverages. Enough is enough. I’ve never seen a team playing 12 yards off the line of scrimmage on 3rd & 8. It’s no wonder the Bucs have had such a hard time getting off the field on third downs lately. They need to be playing press man coverage on every play. I don’t care what team they’re playing. I don’t care which receivers they’re playing. Press em. Get up in their grill and punch em in the mouth at every snap. Disrupt their routes. Mess with their timing. Do something. Anything other than playing ten yards deep and chasing slant routes across the field. Combining more pressure with press man coverage would make a world of difference with this defense. I’m not sure why they haven’t been doing it all along. Maybe Mike Smith was just too set in his ways. Maybe he was just plain old stubborn. Either way, he’s gone. And now Duffner has a chance to change things up a bit.
BE MORE CREATIVE!
As I touched on before, the old Mike Smith defense lacked creativity. It was too vanilla. So much so that it had become somewhat predictable. Basic four man fronts with some kind of weak Cover 2 or Cover 3 zone coverage and no blitzing. It’s not that difficult to game plan against, even for a mediocre offensive coordinator. Duffner has to be more creative. He has to be more unpredictable. Maybe even unorthodox, especially up front. He should let Brentson Buckner get crazy with the d-line. Start mixing in some 3-4 looks. Put Gerald McCoy or Vita Vea at nose tackle with his hand in the dirt and stand everyone else up. Walk guys around and cause some confusion pre-snap. They have the personnel on the d-line to do almost anything they want up front, so why not get creative with it and have some fun. I’m sure Coach Buck would be chomping at the bit for that opportunity. Let him go nuts!
Duffner can also play those same kind of games with his linebackers. Walk them around pre-snap and keep the o-line guessing. And for goodness sake, blitz those guys and blitz them a lot. Let them do what they do. Let them hunt.
Being more creative and less predictable would keep opposing offenses on their toes. It makes it harder for opposing coaches to game plan against. It makes it more difficult for opposing offenses to attack. It keeps the opposing o-line back on their heels. And it keeps opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. That’s how you stop opposing teams from scoring points. And that’s what Duffner needs this defense to do.
BE MORE ACCOUNTABLE!
So this might be the most important one of all. I thought that this team’s mindsets and culture would change after Jason Licht brought in free agents like Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. Each one of those guys have either played in or won a Super Bowl. Each one of them know the sacrifice and hard work that it takes to reach that level. And I thought that those guys would bring a new winning attitude into this Tampa Bay locker room. Apparently that hasn’t happened. At least not yet. Last week against the Falcons, cameras caught Gerald McCoy, Will Gholston, Cameron Lynch and Kwon Alexander dancing on the sideline while their team was still down by 8 points. On Monday, JPP was asked about that on a local Bucs radio show and he actually called those guys out by saying “Yeah, I’m sorry that our fans had to see that on the sidelines”. He added that “Each individual player needs to check themselves in those situations”. Now that’s the kind of leadership that I expected when JPP came here. I just hope that the players respond to it in a positive way and not in a negative one. It’s a way to hold players accountable for their actions which is definitely needed on this team.
Accountability also means each man doing his job. Nothing more, nothing less. Just do your job and trust that the man next to you will do his job. If each player just does his job, knows his assignment and takes care of his responsibility then the defense shouldn’t have any problems, right? It should run like a Swiss watch. That’s how the Buccaneers defense used to run in the good old days. And that’s how they won a Super Bowl.
The final way for this defense to be held more accountable is by the coaches. That obviously starts with their defensive coordinator Duffner. So how does he do that? He can start by staying down on the sidelines instead of calling plays from the booth upstairs. In his debut press conference, Duff said that he would be doing just that. Being on the sidelines and standing there among his players gives him complete access to them during the game. It allows him to confront guys as they come off the field when they don’t do their job. It allows him to talk face-to-face and man-to-man with the players. It enables better communication as to what he wants and how he wants it done on the field. It allows him to be down there in the middle of all the chaos. And it allows him to keep tabs on and put a sudden stop to any sideline shenanigans like we saw in Atlanta. Duffner is a more assertive, more in-your-face kind of coach. Much more so than Smith. Sometimes that’s just what players need. Sometimes that’s what they respond to.
So there it is Coach Duff…the recipe for success. Now all you have to do is follow it and the Bucs will be on their way towards the postseason, right? Okay, maybe not. But it’s a start in the right direction. It could be the beginning of finally putting some respect back behind that Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive reputation. Hopefully, those guys rally around their new DC and buy into his new philosophies. Hopefully, this defense sets out to prove that it was in fact Mike Smith all along and not just the players on the field. And hopefully that journey back to greatness will start this Sunday against a Browns offense who’s still struggling to find it’s identity.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!