The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a down year on defense in 2009. Tampa Bay's defensive decline started at the end of the 2008 season, resulting in the team losing their final four games and knocking them out of playoff contention with a 9-7 record. After former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin announced his decision to leave the Bucs to coach at Tennessee with his son, Raheem Morris was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator. A month later, the then 32-year old defensive coordinator was promoted once again to head coach after the Bucs fired Jon Gruden.
With Morris taking on the responsibilities of being a new head coach, the team signed former Dolphins, Packers, and Broncos defensive coordinator Jim Bates to run the defense. Under Bates, the defense struggled mainly because the personnel did not fit what he wanted to do. The players were uncomfortable in his system and a change had to be made. After 10 weeks of poor performance on defense, Bates was relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator and Morris took over starting Week 12 against the Atlanta Falcons. This offseason Morris has remained the defensive coordinator and he wouldn't have it any other way as he loves coaching the defensive side of the ball.
"Most of my time on the field is spent with the defense. There is no doubt about that," said Morris. "The part of the time I spend with the offense is when we go inside and I sit down with Greg Olson and we get a chance to simulate as many situations as we can, so when a situation comes up in a game we are prepared in what we do, and we go out and execute. Coach [Rich] Bisaccia is my special teams coordinator, so he helps out a lot in that. Coach [Greg] Olson he helps out a lot in that. Really as a threesome we figure out what we need to do."
The first-year head coach went back to a system that the players were familiar with and better fit into when he took over the playcalling on defense, which resulted in the unit showing great improvement. Veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is a witness to the passion that Morris has for this role, as Morris calls all of the plays into him to relay to the rest of the defense.
"It's interesting because I think when he first took over I don't know if he thought that he would be able to manage the game and call a defense and now when you talk to him he's like ‘I don't know how I couldn't ever do this' because he likes it so much more," said Ruud. "He likes being able to call his defense and manage a game. I think he really likes his role right now."
Although the Bucs finished with the 27th ranked defense and allowed the sixth most points in the in league, averaging a total of 25 points given up per game, they finished the final six games playing with a new found confidence under Morris. This translated into a better overall performance than how the defense previously played with Bates.
Tampa Bay's defense will now spend a whole offseason learning the intricacies of Morris' Tampa 2 hybrid system and the players hope to continue improving under his guidance. Ruud, who is the quarterback of the defense, likes the new twists that Morris has incorporated into the Tampa 2, making it his own unique version of the popular defensive scheme.
"It's a new defense," Ruud said. "It's not like we're playing the 2007 Bucs defense. It's a lot of new things, but [Raheem Morris] has incorporated a lot of the old and the new. He's blended it well together and I really like what he's doing. He's taking advantage of what we have on defense. [Morris] can play a little bit more under [front] because Quincy [Black]'s probably one of the better under linebackers we've had since Al Singleton."
The area that Tampa Bay's defense struggled with the most last season was stopping the run. In fact, they ranked dead last in the NFL allowing 158.2 yards per game. The Bucs felt it was important to upgrade that aspect of their defense and did so when they drafted Oklahoma product Gerald McCoy in the first round and UCLA's Brian Price early in the second round.
Another area the defense is looking to improve on is their pass rush. Tampa Bay finished 26th in the NFL in sacks, getting to the quarterback 28 times in 2009, which was only one less than 2008's sack total. Rookies McCoy and Price can also help out in that department, as they have shown tremendous pass rush ability in college. The combination of McCoy, Price, and second-year defensive tackle Roy Miller should help the team's outside pass rush too by collapsing the pocket and getting more inside penetration than what the team had in previous years.
One player that is expected to get more playing time this year along the defensive line and contribute as a pass rusher is defensive end Kyle Moore. Moore was rehabbing an injury for the first half of his rookie season and now has an entire offseason to get reps with the rest of his teammates and learn the defense. The second-year USC product also recently lost weight after having to put on a few pounds to play in Bates' system. Now that Moore is playing at his natural weight and has another offseason to learn the defense, he should be ready to make an impact rushing from the outside and also playing inside in certain situations.
Other defensive ends the Bucs have on the roster that the team expects to provide pass rush are veterans Stylez White, Tim Crowder, and Michael Bennett, along with a handful of rookies including seventh-round pick Erik Lorig and rookie camp standout James Ruffin. These players will be competing for roster spots and playing time at defensive end, but they won't be relied on for producing all of the team's pass rush. Morris will continue to find ways to creatively use all of his personnel on defense to cause havoc in the backfield of opposing offenses.
The Buccaneers have installed a good portion of their defense during the team's offseason practices. Morris has been able to get some looks at his new players while adding some new wrinkles to his defense. During Monday's mini-camp practice the Bucs defense was able to simulate some game-day scenarios.
"Being on the sideline rather than being in the middle of the field as an administrator," said Morris. "I was over there calling calls for the defense. I got to relay it to the play signal caller. I got to get the personnel from one of my coaches. I got to get the down and distance from one of my coaches, and I got to give it out there to Barrett.
"Today it was more about the call to the Mike (middle linebacker). To the personnel to the down and distance, and not being scripted. The other thing is it was a great day. During seven-on-sevens and you call a blitz with a dropping end. A couple of those situations happened to. You don't want to call a timeout to ruin the rhythm of practice, but it is funny for the quarterback as they throw to the wide-open man."
The secondary is the strongest part of this defense. After struggling early in 2009, the defensive backfield finished 10th overall in that category and recorded 19 interceptions. Even more turnover opportunities should come this season with a stronger pass rush. The team also drafted cornerback Myron Lewis in the third round to add competition to the nickel CB spot and signed Sean Jones in free agency to compete at safety. Adding these pieces alongside Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib, Tanard Jackson, and Sabby Piscitelli should only improve the unit that is now coached by Jimmy Lake.
"[Jones] and Sabby [Piscitelli] have competed the whole camp," said Morris. "They've been going at it. One day Sabby is up, one day Sean Jones is up. They have been out there and they have been playing. Today was Jones' day and tomorrow will be Sabby's day. They are both going to go out there and compete hard. That is the beauty of OTA days. That is the beauty of training camp. Watching guys compete, and watching guys that want to play. I'm really enjoying watching this competition. To both of their credit, they complement each other when they play together."
During preseason games the competition between Jones and Piscitelli will be heavily scrutinized. In those games the players are able to tackle, and missed tackles by Piscitelli and others contributed greatly to the team struggling to defend the run last season.
Whoever wins the starting strong safety will have some talent playing around them. The Bucs defensive leader Ruud has confidence in the abilities of the players that play behind him.
"We've got guys in the back end like Tanard [Jackson] and Ronde [Barber] who are very versatile," said Ruud. "They can do multiple things, so [Raheem] is basically taking advantage of what we do well on defense."
O'HANLON CLAIMED OFF WAIVERS
The Buccaneers claimed a player away from a division rival on Monday with the acquisition of safety Matt O'Hanlon from the Carolina Panthers. O'Hanlon was signed by the Panthers after going undrafted out of Nebraska. In his collegiate career O'Hanlon totaled 132 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks, seven interceptions, and 10 passes defensed. Last season O'Hanlon had six interceptions. The Buccaneers released backup safety Emanuel Cook last week.
BUCS ROOKIES HOST BOWLING OUTING
The Buccaneers 2010 rookies get their 2010 Rookie Club off the field activities started this Thursday and Friday when the Bucs first-year players do some work with area youth groups. On Thursday the Bucs rookies will be in Tampa to host at-risk youth for a bowling outing. On Friday they host youth from the Boys & Girls Clubs in the Orlando area at Universal Orlando.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Jones discussed yesterday's practice and what Morris told the team at the end of the practice.
"He just told us we need to be intense at all times. He said we've been practicing and playing very well, but we need to be intense at all times because he's trying to make these mini-camps and training camp as much of a game-like situation as possible. He just wants us to be intense and on top of everything at all times.
"I don't think he thought we slacked off. As a good coach, as a great coach, you want to motivate your guys when it's time. Today it's hot. It's the second practice and it's the first time we've had two-a-days in a while. He just wanted to motivate us and keep us going because it's a long season. We just want to go out there and play and win and that's what we're going to do out here."
Pewter Report's Eric Dellaratta contributed to this report.