As an Atlanta Falcons season ticket holder, and native Atlantan, (ATLien for you locals) I wholeheartedly believe that the NFC South plays the best football collectively. Every season there’s a rotation for division supremacy. For the past four or so seasons, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have alternated their bid for the throne. In 2013, I fully expect both of those teams to be two of the best in the entire NFL……
I just don’t expect either to be better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers henceforth!
There’s a quiet buzz being bandied about in Tampa, Florida. The franchise has strung together two straight pivotal offseasons personnel wise. In 2012, the hiring of longtime Rutgers University coach, Greg Schiano, signified a complete 180 degree turn from the waywardness of the previous regime. Although the Bucs would finish with a 7-9 record, the pieces were put in place for long-term sustainability.
Greg Schiano has brought a hard nosed approach to Tampa not unlike his great friend Bill Belichick, the future Hall-of-Fame coach of the New England Patriots. Schiano believes that the game is won first and foremost in the trenches. He wants to run the ball and stop the run. Two things the Bucs most certainly did well in his first season as head coach.
Going into last season, I expected the defense to be one of the better units in the league. The first round selection (7th overall) out of Alabama, Strong Safety Mark Barron, would team up with longtime veteran Ronde Barber – who was making the move from Corner to Free Safety in Coach Schiano’s new scheme – to form a hard hitting/ball-hawking combo like no other. I assumed the corner duo of Eric Wright and Aqib Talib would work perfectly with the type of pressure the front seven would generate on a number of exotic blitzes. Well I found out what happens when you assume! Aqib Talib’s act wore thin as he was suspended, (violation of the NFL’s P.E.D. rule) and then traded. Eric Wright was also suspended (same violation) for four games, and the secondary could never seem to get on track. Both Barron (88 tackles, 1 Int, 1 forced fumble) and Barber (92 tackles, 4 Int’s, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack, 1 TD) did their respective jobs. Barber may have had one of his finest seasons as a pro, despite the position/defensive scheme change. Barron was as advertised, a hard-hitting, play-making, ball hawk, with a propensity for splashy splays. Despite their play, the pass defense was horrendous – finishing dead last in the league while giving up 4,758 yards (297 per game). Allowing 65.4% pass completion (30 TD’s). Overall, the defense finished 29th.
I must point out that a bright spot of note was the run defense. The Bucs finished #1 overall in run defense, giving up a total of 1,320 yards. I’ve heard most critics say this was due to the fact that the pass defense was so horrible – that teams didn’t really need to run on them. I say that’s a lazy way of looking at it. When teams did run they had no success. The Bucs led the league in average gain per attempt at 3.5! I fully expect them to have similar success against the run in 2013. Ultimately what will put them over the top is superior corner play. And primarily, there’s one reason why….
Since the moment he stepped on the field in 2007, Darrelle Revis has been the consensus best cornerback in the league. What makes him great is his versatility. He possesses immense talent in each aspect it takes to be an elite corner. His off-man coverage is as great as his press-man coverage. His superior tackling ability may be only superseded by his ultra-impressive ball skills. His well-rounded set of skills makes him a perfect fit in Greg Schiano’s blitz heavy scheme!
A thorough review of the 2012 game film revealed a very unique defense. This 4-3 scheme, coordinated by Bill Sheridan, had many elements of a 3-4 defense – starting with a nose tackle. The Bucs run what is called a tilted nose, (they take a larger tackle and have him slanted at the 1 technique, to the outside shoulder of the center but in between the guard) which lends to greater opportunity for the linebackers to make plays.
The front seven is filled with undersized, fast lineman and linebackers. Rookie weak-side linebacker, Lavonte David, (6’1 – 233 lbs) proved to be a perfect fit for this scheme as he was an absolute terror in the run game. His 139 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 Int – set the tone for this dominant run defense. Not to be outdone, second year middle linebacker Mason Foster – chipped in with an impressive 105 tackles, 2 sacks and 1 Int of his own. Ends Adrian Clayborn and Daquan Bowers are very solid when healthy. 3 technique defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is an absolute stud. He overcame a slow start to his career (due to injury), to have a breakout season in 2012. His ability to one gap penetrate, and disrupt QB’s (30 tackles, 5 sacks) is the key to this style of 4-3 defense.
What makes this defense special – is the multitude of alignments they throw at offenses. It’s nothing to see the ends lined up in a wide 9 technique (out past the shoulder of the tight end) one play, then playing inside the tackles in more of 4i technique (inside shoulder of the tackle) the subsequent play. They’ll line up in your average 4-3 alignment with the tackles running the 3 technique (outside shoulder of the guard), then shift over before the snap for a perfectly timed blitz. This is a complex scheme that requires players to fill gaps and and tackle extremely well. This phenomenal run defense wasn’t done by smoke and mirrors – it was executed by playing extremely fast, disciplined, and physical football.
Here we have what looks like a blitz on first down against a one back, 3 receiver, 1 tight end look for the Saints. I diagrammed what the perceived regular call was for the Bucs’ D – prior to the snap. The corners are in man to man on the outside. The inside nickel back is man up as well. Free safety Ronde Barber #20 has zone coverage on the back end, but he is disguising it by walking up closer to the line. Strong Safety Mark Barron is the last line of defense in his zone technique. The ends are almost in a wide 9 look, with everyone across the board rushing the passer. Defensive end #71 Michael Bennett is lined up at a tackle spot. Nickel Safety Ahmad Black is showing a blitz look, but he bails before the snap to get in a deep zone. The lone linebacker Lavonte David is a free man of sorts. He can either blitz or drop back in a short zone. This is almost like an inverted cover 3 look! Amazing!! Offensively, by normal accounts, this would be some type of a pass play. But it’s actually a draw play to the running back #43 Darren Sproles.
On a draw, the lineman block like it’s a pass play to draw the defense up field towards the QB This creates wide run lanes for the offense. Against most defenses this would work. Not against these guys! They diagnose it pretty quick and start filling lanes. Bennett does a great job of holding the point of attack. I highlight with arrows – how despite being engaged in a block – he has the ability to go in either direction depending on what the ball carries does. And as usual, the scheme allows Lavonte David a prime opportunity to make a play – I’ve circled him.
Talent + Scheme = Execution!! Bennett and Lavonte David meet their responsibilities and stuff this tricky play for a 4 yard loss..
From my time of watching Coach Schiano’s Rutgers defense over the years, I noticed a distinct difference in his first season in Tampa. Often times, on 3rd and long situations – the Bucs relied mostly on a three man rush. They play like one of the more aggressive defenses on first and second down, but play flat out scared on third. This led to teams converting a significant amount of long down and distances on them, due to this insipid style of play.
Because of their superior run defense, the Bucs often found themselves in positive down and distance situations. Here they have the Saints in 3rd and long. They have three down lineman, one linebacker (David), and seven defensive backs. To me, this is the epitome of playing scared. All seven DB’s are in a short area zone technique. This is the NFC South, the very best division in regards to passing the football!
As expected, the Bucs don’t generate any pressure on Drew Brees – giving him enough time to hitch up in the pocket and wait for a slow developing play to unfold.
And unfold it does. On 3rd and 8, the Saints get 16 yards against an extremely vanilla zone defense.
Watching Schiano over the years, he’d like to be able to dial up exotic blitzes in this situation – with the confidence his DB’s can cover for the allotted time it takes to get to the QB. He’d like to have four or more rushers at all times, to keep the defense guessing like he does on earlier downs. With the addition of Darrelle Revis, he will now have that confidence.
This is what the average afternoon looks like for the TOP opposing receiving threat going against Revis. It can turn into a lonely and dreary day any given sunday. Here we have one of the top five receivers in the NFL in Roddy White – vacationing on Revis Island.
Revis utilizes the press technique to perfection as he doesn’t even have to gather his feet. He’s already stride for stride with Roddy and the route hasn’t really even got out of the gate.
It’s almost as if Revis is running the route for Roddy. He was just waiting for Roddy to turn and locate the ball.
When the receiver looks, Revis mimics it. This is the aspect of defending the pass that most corners struggle with. Often times corners never even turn their heads because they are afraid of losing the receiver. Not only does Revis locate the football, but he does a great job of positioning himself in between the man and the ball. Similar to “boxing out” in basketball.
The best thing Roddy could do is impede Revis from intercepting this pass as Revis was in a better position to catch the ball than he was. Revis draws a lot of penalties like this – which puts the offense in ever greater down and distances. For Schiano’s defense, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Revis will shadow the opponents best receiving threat as he did in New York. This will allow for more favorable match-ups with the rest of the corners. Veteran Eric Wright is a decent #1 corner, but getting a chance to be on the second best receiving threat makes him that much more valuable. Rookie corner out of Mississippi State, Johnthan Banks, (6’2 – 185 lbs) has all the tools to be a big time performer once he’s acclimated to NFL play. I graded him out as a first round talent, much in-part to his ball skills and physical makeup. He will be coached up in Tampa and may end up being the nest corner in the draft. Being able to learn from Revis and Wright while defending #2 and #3 receivers will pay dividends in the long run for Banks. In addition, corners like Leonard Johnson, Anthony Gaitor and Myron Lewis all have value, especially working against 3rd or 4th receivers or playing nickel.
I think an addition that could one day be looked upon as being on par with the Revis acquisition – is the luring of veteran free safety Dashon Goldson away from the San Francisco 49ers. Do-it-all vet Ronde Barber decided to finally hang up his cleats this off-season. As great as Ronde was this past season – I think Goldson offers some aspects in his game that Ronde did not at the end of his career. He brings to the table a lot of the positive qualities that made Barber so beneficial to this Bucs defense, as well as some that are unique to him personally. Goldson, (6’2 – 200 lbs) might be the hardest hitter in the league at the safety position. He brings an intimidation factor that plants fear in the heart of receivers and tight ends alike. As a matter of fact, another safety who fits that same exact description will be playing right next to Goldson! Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson are almost mirror images of each other.
Two rangy, big-hitting safeties, who could be pro-bowlers at both Free and Strong Safety. Having interchangeable safeties does wonders for blitz packages in all personnel schemes, but especially in a defense full of disguises like Schiano’s. Also, being that both of these guys are 6’2, they match up well with most tight ends in the league. The NFC South alone has two of the top five tight ends in the entire NFL. Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons, and the New Orleans Saints Jimmy Graham are almost indefensible. They are too big for corners, and too athletic and crafty for safeties. Running the combo of Barron and Goldson at them can at the very least slow them down enough to force throws elsewhere. In addition, the Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen may very well be a top 10 tight end in his own right. Having the versatile duo of Barron and Goldson provides two great options to defend those tight ends. Defending the pass in the NFC South is no small task, having Revis and a host of talented DB’s on your side gives you the greatest chance.
In 2009 the New York Jets were on their four year schedule rotation with the NFC South. Revis got a chance to go against all many of the receivers that he will see twice a year now. He shadowed the aforementioned Roddy White (Falcons), Marques Colston (Saints) and Steve Smith (Panthers). Here’s how that went:
Colston: 6 targets, 2 catches for 33 yards – 0 TD’s.
Smith: 6 targets, 1 catch for 5 yards – 0 TD’s
White: 10 targets, 4 catches for 33 yards – 0 TD’s
This was one of the most revealing film studies I’ve done to this date. There’s no substitute for competition in sports. Revis deserves to be crowned the best corner in the game, as he achieves his accolades by following the top players around and challenging them one on one. I fully expect Revis to bounce back to elite form from his torn acl that robbed him of most of last season.
Imagine having to line up on Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Wes Welker….ALL GAME! Until we see another corner have the success of Revis, while trailing the top receiving threat each game, let’s not compare another corner to him. He should be judged on a different scale. The film doesn’t lie.
Here we have Revis matched up with Calvin Johnson the consensus best receiver in the game. Detroit has Johnson lined up off the line to slim his chances of being pressed before he starts his route.
Johnson gives Revis a jab step (a stick) like he’s running an outside pattern.
This works, as Johnson has Revis discombobulated. Revis must now commit the cardinal sin in turning his whole body in attempt to keep up with the receiver. And this receiver happens to be the biggest and fastest of them all.
Revis is behind Megatron, who is running a 9 route (Go pattern). This 99/100 is a TD for the Lions.
Amazingly Revis has the wherewithal and makeup speed to give himself a chance to recover. This is a perfectly thrown ball by Matthew Stafford as Megatron doesn’t even have to break stride to catch this one.
Revis highpoints the ball and bats it away before Megatron has a chance. Perfect execution of patience, technique, and superior skill. Megatron finished this game with 1 catch for 13 yards on 4 targets!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a unique scheme that is built on speed, sure tackling, and tenacity. Coach Greg Schiano has changed the culture throughout the team – most notably on defense. The run defense was #1 in the league, and with the additions to the secondary, it won’t be long until we say that #1 being followed by the title of “overall defense”.
Stay tuned for another installment of the Tampa Bay Bucs roster report. I will focus my efforts on the offensive side of the ball, which will be helped out tremendously by this defense.