If you’re a defensive guy like me, then you were even more disappointed with last season than other Bucs fans. Last year was abysmal to say the least. It was tough to watch. After finishing with the 10th ranked total defense and first in third down percentage allowed in 2016, they finished dead last in both categories for the 2017 season. So did Jason Licht do enough to fix the issues? How will the defense be different this year from last? Will it be different? I wanted to take a deeper look.
Last year, the defense was bad. A huge reason that it was bad was their run defense. They finished as one of the worst teams in the league against the run. When a team can’t stop the run, especially on first down, it makes for shorter second and third down attempts which makes for easier conversions. That’s why they were the worst third down defense in the league after finishing number one in that category in 2016.
So how did Jason Licht remedy that problem? Well, the first thing he did was get rid of the lazy, locker room cancer himself Chris Baker. Great start! As we all saw throughout Hard Knocks last season, he refused to work hard in practice, took plays off during games and just wasn’t a good overall teammate. Next came the tough decision not to bring back aging players like Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald. Even though those guys did what they could, it still wasn’t enough. Licht really wanted to shake things up and change the culture up front. What better way to do that than to follow in the footsteps of the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Philly’s defensive line was ridiculous last year. They finished first in the league in quarterback pressures by a mile. They had 291 total pressures in 2017 while the next closest team, the Redskins, had 269 pressures. They had seven players who finished with 20+ pressures for the year including Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Beau Allen. But not only did these guys get after the QB, they were stout against the run too. In fact, they finished with the number one rushing defense in football last year. They only allowed 79 rushing yards per game and 7 rushing touchdowns for the season. Only two teams allowed fewer TD’s on the ground, the Titans and Patriots, and both made the playoffs. In comparison, The Buccaneers allowed 117 yards per game and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Only the Lions and the Bills allowed more. So what can be attributed to the Eagles d-line success? Two things: their rotation and their versatility. The rotation across the Eagles d-line consisted of seven players who played at least 40% of the defensive snaps for the season and none of them played more than 65% of the snaps. That rotation allowed them to keep fresh players in there throughout the entire game, much like that of the line changes on a hockey team, and it paid off. They forced more three and outs than any other team (43.6%). They gave opposing QB’s the shortest amount of time in the pocket at 2.15 seconds on average. And they held opponents to a league-low 27 min 18 sec time of possession per game. But not only were they fresher in the fourth quarter of games, they were more rested and less banged up towards the end of the season as well. That allowed them to switch gears in the playoffs and let guys like Cox and Graham and Curry to play 75-90% of the defensive snaps. They were able to keep their best players on the field longer in the postseason because they were able to rest them so much during the regular season.
That heavy seven to eight man rotation works best when you have talent and versatility across your entire defensive line, not just amongst the “starters” , but with the reserves as well. The more you can switch players around and move pieces in and out, the easier it is to keep a quality rotation going. The longer you can keep that rotation going, the longer your players will stay fresh. And the longer your players stay fresh, the harder it is for those big, tired, worn down offensive linemen to deal with them. That’s why the Eagles were able to close out games defensively once their offense gained the lead, which was something the Bucs defense could not do last season. So how did Jason Licht give the Buccaneers d-line that same kind of rotation and versatility? Like this…
When free agency first opened up, most of us Bucs fans were expecting this team to make a huge splash in the market and go on some kind of spending spree for “big name” free agents in order to improve the defense. They didn’t. For maybe the first time since he came to Tampa, Jason Licht didn’t try to sign the “best players” available on the market. He tried to sign the right ones. His first free agent signings of the 2018 offseason were two guys that most of us had to Google to figure out who they were in Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. However if you did Google them, you may have seen the biggest reason why Licht wanted those guys on this team. They both finished as the top ranked run stuffers in football last season and both can play inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end depending on the front. And as you read above, Allen was one of those seven Eagles players with 20+ QB pressures last season. Next, Licht was able to lure Eagles free agent and Allen’s former teammate Vinny Curry here. He was another guy who not only had 20+ QB pressures last year, but was a key contributor in the run defense on the edge and has the ability to play both inside and outside as well.
Licht was off to a great start, but he wasn’t done yet. Next, he traded a third round pick to the New York Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Despite losing a couple of fingers in a fireworks accident in 2015, he is still one of the elite pass rushers in the league and pretty good against the run as well. Jason Licht had been wanting him for years and he finally saw his opportunity and pounced on it. That trade gave the Bucs yet another versatile player, who can play inside or outside, to move around like a chess piece. The final offseason move that Licht made to improve the d-line came in the 2018 NFL Draft where he selected the best defensive tackle in college football Vita Vea from the University of Washington. Vea is a huge, young man that has the ability to plug up the middle of a line and stuff the run, but he’s also tremendously disruptive in the backfield and collapses pockets as well. If you’re keeping track, that’s five very versatile additions to a group that still had one of the best interior lineman in the NFL in Gerald McCoy, a versatile player in Will Gholston, a big run stuffing nose tackle in Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and a pass rush specialist off the edge in Noah Spence. That’s a really talented and versatile nine-man rotation, ten if you count defensive end Will Clarke in that mix. I would venture to say maybe even more talented than the 2017 Eagles d-line, but only time will tell.
Perhaps the most important addition to the 2018 Buccaneers defensive line wasn’t even a player at all. Jason Licht brought in his long time friend Brentson Buckner to replace Jay Hayes as the d-line coach and man what a difference. Coach Buck, as the players call him, brought in a completely different philosophy and attitude to this group and it sounds awfully similar to the Eagles philosophy from last year. He tells the players that they’re no longer defensive tackles or ends, they’re ALL defensive linemen. Which means that he wants his entire group to be interchangeable and versatile enough to play any position, in any front, at any time. In training camp, he’s already had JPP playing snaps inside and even a few at nose tackle. He’s had McCoy and Allen playing outside and Curry and Gholston playing inside. Spence hasn’t even been in on the regular rotation. They’ve been saving him as an edge rusher in obvious passing down situations. It looks as though Buck’s plan for this line is a heavy rotation of substitutions with multiple looks and fronts that will cause mismatches and give the Bucs the best chance to stop the run first and get to the quarterback second. His methods, along with the knowledge and experience of the four new free agents who have all played in or won a Super Bowl, SHOULD give this d-line everything they need to succeed this season.
Anyone that’s ever played or just understands football, knows that everything starts up front on both sides of the ball. If the big boys are getting the job done up front on defense, then it makes the jobs of the linebackers on the second level much easier. It also allows a little more freedom for those LB’s to blitz from time to time. Last year was a perfect example of that very thing. The guys up front were not able to stop the run, so the linebackers had to pick up the slack. They weren’t able to get to the quarterback either, but the Bucs didn’t blitz very much because they couldn’t trust their secondary. On first downs, they were around the middle of the league blitzing about 25% of the time, but on second and third downs they were in the bottom five in the league blitzing on less than 20% of the snaps. Between the new d-line and the deeper, more improved secondary I expect those numbers to go up dramatically. This should be a really fun year for Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith. Last year, those three only combined for one sack which was by Beckwith. This year should be much different. Even though the Bucs will undoubtedly be running their usual 4-3 defense, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some kind of 3-4 fronts thrown in there from time to time with Spence and Beckwith as the outside LB’s rushing the passer. And we’ve already seen Kwon blitzing up the “A-gap” in camp which didn’t happen much last year, so expect more of that as well. This SHOULD be a fun defense for these linebackers to play in and it SHOULD be fun for us to watch too. Remember how good the 2002 Buccaneers d-line was? Remember how good they made that LB group of Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Al Singleton look? Well, I think this group has the potential to be even better. There’s just as much, if not more talent on this defense than there was on that Super Bowl team both in the front seven and on the backside. (Stay tuned for an upcoming article where I compare the personnel from that 2002 team to this year’s squad and decide which is better.)
As I said earlier, it all starts up front, but this group might be the biggest benefactors of the new defensive line. Since this defense SHOULD be getting more pressure up front, these guys won’t have to cover players like Julio Jones and Michael Thomas for five or six seconds anymore. Not only that, but this cornerback group is much deeper than it was last year. In 2017, the Bucs starting corners were Brent Grimes and Ryan Smith while Vernon Hargreaves took over the nickel corner spot. This year, with the additions of rookies Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart, the secondary will have a different look. My prediction is that Grimes and Davis will be the starters outside while Hargreaves will return as the nickel. Stewart will likely be the fourth corner and backup nickel while Smith will now be the fifth cornerback. This lineup allows for some flexibility in coverages and the size and length of Davis adds a dimension that the team didn’t have last season. We might see a lot more press man coverage this year instead of that ten yard cushion zone crap that we were all sick of seeing last season. We’ve also seen more blitzes from the nickel and corner positions in camp, which was something we never saw last year. More pressure on the QB means more hurried or bad throws, which means more opportunities for turnovers. This group of corners SHOULD take advantage of that and improve on the 13 interceptions from last year.
This group SHOULD be ecstatic about the new additions up front too since it SHOULD make their lives much easier. It looks as though Chris Conte and Justin Evans will be the starting safety duo to start the season. However, as superstar was born during that first preseason game at Miami in Jordan Whitehead. The rookie was all over the field making plays and laying the wood with some punishing hits without drawing a penalty flag. He was good in coverage and at supporting the run defense. He definitely appears to be the Bucs future at strong safety. I haven’t watched the game again yet, so I didn’t notice if the Bucs sent anyone on a safety blitz against the Dolphins but I expect it to happen eventually. With a more talented cornerback group that can be better trusted, it SHOULD allow for Mike Smith to blitz more from the back end especially from that strong safety position.
With all that being said, this defense SHOULD have a completely different look than it did in the 2017 season. And that’s a good thing because it was horrible. The d-line SHOULD be offering different fronts with multiple looks and lineups that will take advantage of mismatches. There SHOULD be more blitzing from the linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. There SHOULD be much better and more physical coverage from the secondary. This defense SHOULD be what this team has been missing for over a decade which is a dominant force that can be depended upon to close out or even win games. But this is all just speculative theory. The proof will be on the field come Week 1 in New Orleans.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!