The All-22: Why is Buccaneers' defense still struggling under defensive-minded Lovie Smith?
For some time now, Lovie Smith has been known as being a great defensive-minded coach. When he took over as the Rams' defensive coordinator in 2001, he took a defense ranked 27th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics just the year before and pushed it up to fifth, and during his tenure, the defenses never dropped below 11th. But as soon as he left to become the Bears' head coach in 2004, the St. Lous D plummeted to 28th.
Under his leadership from 2004 through 2012, Chicago's defense slipped out of the top 10 just once, and finished first in FO's rankings in 2005 and 2012. Smith took a year off after the Bears fired him following the 2012 season, and officially replaced Greg Schiano as the Buccaneers' head coach on Jan. 7, 2014. Given Smith's acumen, the pieces that Tampa Bay already had in place on the defensive side of the ball, and the acquisition via free agency of even more talent, it was expected that defense would lead the way for the Bucs this season.
Clearly, that has not been the case. The 1-5 Bucs currently rank 30th in FO's defensive metrics; they're 31st against the pass and 13th against the run. (For comparison -- last season, in a totally dysfunctional environment, the Bucs ranked eighth overall.)
It was bad enough when the Falcons humiliated Smith's team 56-14 in Week 3, but things got worse last Sunday, when Baltimore's Joe Flacco threw for five touchdown passes in the first 16 minutes of the game, and the Ravens were able to pump the brakes for the rest of the day on the way to a comfortable 48-17 win.
So, what's the problem here? This was supposed to work, right? Well, according to cornerback Alterraun Verner, one of those free-agent acquisitions, the primary issue is schematic.
"This is a completely different type of Cover 2 scheme," Verner recently told Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune. "They’re asking me to do some things here that I’ve never done before in my entire football career... It’s a scheme that is very dependent on everybody knowing where they have to go no matter what happens, and knowing that all the little things that the offense does has a ripple effect on what we do."
That's an interesting point to focus on when people tell you that all Cover-Two schemes are the same. Smith is an ardent advocate of the Tampa-Two defense -- putting cornerbacks in position to play a bit more aggressively, while inside linebackers tend to roam more freely in space and up the numbers. Verner played Cover-2 in Tennessee, and Smith used other concepts when he was in Chicago, so this isn't the only issue -- but when you're confusing your players with a set of concepts that have been around for years, it's a bit disconcerting.
Safety Major Wright, who also played under Smith in Chicago in 2011 and '12, remembered that the transition to what Smith wants can take a while.
"I didn’t really start playing well in it until my second year, It took that long to learn it. It really slowed me down at first.”
Based on the tape, however, there's plenty of vidence that the Bucs are being read by their opponents and exploited via their relatively repeatable schematic concepts. So, it sounds like the defense is struggling with an overall playbook apparently too complicated to grasp in the first season, causing players with real talent are running around doing goodness knows what. Not a good look at all.
The debacle against Baltimore started right away. Tampa Bay's linebackers flowed hard to TE Owen Daniels on a play that was stopped by guard Marshal Yanda's false start. But two plays later, the Ravens bet that they could clear out Tampa's linebackers with more motion, and they were exactly correct. The result: A 52-yard gain by Ravens running back Justin Forsett. Here's the defensive pre-snap motion on the false start.
On Forsett's run, Tampa Bay's three linebackers have all moved over to Daniels' motion side, with safety Mark Barron set to cover backside contain if the play goes that way. But, having previously revealed their intentions, the Bucs were set up for failure, allowing Baltimore to play this run perfectly.
Baltimore knew they were running right, so the line didn't even worry about right end Michael Johnson. Left guard John Urschel Left tackle James Hurst cut tackle Gerald McCoy, center Jeremy Zuttah took nose tackle Clinton McDonald along with Yanda, who ran a combo block up to outside linebacker Lavonte David. Left guard John Urschel moved to the second level to take out Barron, fullback Kyle Juszczyk took out middle linebacker Mason Foster, and Daniels dealt with linebacker Danny Lansanah on the edge.
That's a roundabout way of saying that the Bucs had multiple one-on-one battles with Baltimore's blockers, and lost every one. The hole Forsett had to run through tells the whole story.
The first two passing touchdowns allowed by the Bucs were also based on similar defensive progressions. The first, with 13:19 left in the first quarter, happened two plays after Forsett's run. Flacco hit Torrey Smith on a quick little slant at the Tampa Bay five-yard line, and cornerback Brandon Dixon got turned around on the play. Dixon may have been expecting a fade route to Smith in the end zone, but whatever happened, Dixon couldn't recover, and Wright -- who was playing single-high coverage as Barron covered Daniels in the formation -- couldn't get over in time.
With all three linebackers doing that formation dance again (this time to the defensive right side), there was no second-level help. This appears to be another example in which Smith's concepts take away the idea of help.
The second touchdown, which ended Baltimore's second drive a couple of clock minutes later, had the Bucs in nickel with cornerback Leonard Johnson playing receiver Michael Campanaro inside.
This time, Dixon was playing Torrey Smith with bail coverage (turn at an angle to the receiver and follow to help), but he didn't keep up, Johnson was caught up in Campanaro's shorter route, and Wright broke late. It was another distressingly (from the Tampa Bay perspective) easy touchdown for the Ravens.
"The scheme [is] where you have to have a feel for the guy next to you -- we play so much zone," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "And some of it has been the shuffle that we’ve had personnel-wise -- that’s been a part of it. But also you don’t want to get into the business of making excuses. With the guys we have, we’ve got to make it work.
"The good thing about this [upcoming bye] week, we get a chance to go back to some of the basic things that we’ve put in -- back in say April or May -- and we have some guys that are playing for us, some that played for us on Sunday, who weren’t with us in the summer, weren’t with us during training camp. So now we’ll get a chance to start from the ground floor and try to build up with some of those guys that are having to play a lot more for us that we thought they would’ve had to play back in August. But that’s part of it: being able to trust your teammate and practicing with him and getting a feel for him. This week will help us to do that and hopefully we can get through next week with a healthy week and have the majority of our players on the field."
While the Bucs will re-evaluate what's going wrong, it remains to be seen if the coaches have the answers. And that's a worrisome thing for a team that was supposed to be so much further along that this. This week, Smith tried to encapsulate the issues.
"Coverage in general starts with the rush and it hasn’t been good enough," the head coach said this week. "Simple, but from there we’ve given up big passes -- we’re not supposed to give up big passes, you’re supposed to earn it the hard way and we haven’t made plays on the ball. We just haven’t played consistent football. We need to get some of our players back in the secondary -- the last game we played a couple of players who weren’t on our football team when we started the season, but some players that have been here a while would say that they’re not pleased with their play so far."
Based on the overall defensive effectiveness the Bucs have exhibited thus far, it's fair to wonder if Smith and his staff can improve what has become an island paradise for enemy offenses.