Tampa Bay’s offense will face a healthy dose of the 3-4 defense to start the season as three of its first four games are against 3-4 teams. Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson is using some training camp time to prepare for the likes of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
The 3-4 defense is no longer the boogeyman it used to be for the Buccaneers. When Tampa Bay played the likes of Houston and Pittsburgh years ago when only a handful of teams used the 3-4 scheme, the Bucs offense would typically struggle because it was not used to playing that type of front.
But as the 2010 NFL regular season approaches, nearly half the league is playing the 3-4 defense and Tampa Bay is spending much more time practicing against the formation.
“Since about half the teams in the league are running a 3-4, it doesn’t present as big of a problem as it did in the past,” said Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “When you only were facing about three or four teams in the league that run a 3-4, a handful of teams, then you weren’t working on it as much. Now, we’ve done a little bit of it here. So you get a chance to work on it everyday, so it’s created some problems, but I think we’re better prepared for it now than we have been in the past.”
The 3-4 features four linebackers, two defensive ends and a nose tackle. Where facing the 3-4 becomes a challenge is guessing which linebackers are blitzing and which ones are dropping into coverage.
The three defensive linemen up front play a different style than what Tampa Bay traditionally plays in the 4-3 defense, which features two defensive ends, two defensive tackles and three linebackers. Instead of worrying about linemen penetrating a gap, the Bucs offensive linemen usually face a two-gap style of play from the three defensive linemen, whose job is primarily to tie up the offensive linemen and free up the linebackers to make plays.
“The problem is blocking assignments,” Olson said. “Depending on who those outside linebackers are, you have to decide whether or not we’ve got a running back that’s physically able enough to handle the outside rushers. That creates a difference in your scheme up front on whether you’re going to fan with your offensive line and out to the big guys and leave your running backs up inside. To have a way to account for those guys and try to eliminate the mismatches with your running backs.”
What has helped Olson’s offense is the fact that Bucs head coach Raheem Morris has incorporated some 3-4 defense into his game plan as a change-up to the 4-3. Olson says that has bettered prepared Tampa Bay’s offense for the 3-4 than in years past when former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin only stuck with the 4-3.
“There’s a difference in protections every week,” Morris said. “You have to prepare for a different protection. Whatever protection you want to use for the 3-4, it’s different from a 4-3 team and it’s different from what you want to use for a (4-6) Bear team – the old Mr. Ryan’s team. It’s just a difference in protections, a difference in schemes and the mismatches. It’s getting big linebackers on smaller backs and taking advantage of some of those matchups. The difference you can bring from brining people from all over the place, it just creates differences for you that you have to work on them being that we are a 4-3 team. You have to find ways to be able to work on those 3-4 concepts and be able to block them.”
Tampa Bay’s preseason schedule features two 3-4 teams in Miami and Kansas City right off the bat. Houston used to be a 3-4 team, but now plays a 4-3 scheme.
“Our preseason opponents are going to give us a chance to work on some of the schemework that we’ll do,” Olson said. “Obviously, as you guys know, you don’t show everything, but it’s a real good work for us.”
Olson said the Bucs are already preparing to play the first four opponents on their regular season schedule. Three of which – Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – all play the 3-4.
“We’ve got to spent a lot of time in our group install period, we’ll spend a day – (tomorrow is) the Cincinnati Bengals’ 3-4 period – so we’ve got a 15-minute period broken down in training camp on every day, and we’ll pick a team. Pittsburgh Steelers is the defense in place for the day, tomorrow it will be the Cincinnati Bengals, and we go through, and the players understand, ‘Okay, now I know who we’re preparing for.’ And now you go through the rest of the practice and we play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but we always set aside time in practice to work against the opponent.
“This year, because of those teams – and because our defense is predominantly a four-down-front team – we just decided that is something we need to make sure that we’re spending more time on, so it is different than past, normally we’ll use that period—that group install period—to work on a blitz pickup period, or we may say, ‘Here’s some looks we’re going to see later on today from our defense, so let’s practice them up here.’ But now, we’ve just said, ‘Hey, let’s identify those teams that are gong to create some problems for us and let’s get a jump start on them in training camp.’”
Olson is encouraging his players, especially the linemen, tight ends and backs, to start doing film study of the Browns and the season opener is just five weeks away.
“Already, yeah,” Olson said. “Players are watching tape on them as well during training camp. We’re always encouraging them. The way technology is today, they all have computers in their own room, and all the blitz packages are broken down for every opponent on the season, so they stay on top of it.”
The fact that Morris’ defense mixes in some 3-4 fronts as part of Tampa Bay’s game plan, and the Bucs will face two preseason opponents that run a 3-4, the team should be well versed in facing the scheme, which is not quite as unique and exotic as it was nearly a decade ago.
“It really created, six, seven years ago, because of the few teams that were running it, it was hard to prepare for in a one week period,” Olson said. “Now that so many teams are running it, we’ve had a chance to work on it in the spring, and we had a chance to work on it in June, and now we’re getting a chance to work on it now. It does still create some problems. It’s not the old traditional four-down front that in NFL football for years most of the teams played. We’ve just had a [greater] chance to work with it.”Paul Mueller contributed to this story
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