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In this week's column, Bates' former players provide details in terms of what was required of the defensive linemen, linebackers and cornerbacks in Bates' 4-3 defensive scheme during his five-year tenure in Miami.
This unique insight should give Bucs fans a better idea of what to expect from Tampa Bay's defense in 2009 and beyond.
For the first time since 1995, Monte Kiffin is not Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator, but that doesn't mean the Bucs have abandoned the 4-3 front. In fact, Bates' defense likely will use it over 90 percent of the time.
Although there will be a few instances where the Bucs use the "Tampa 2" shell, the 4-3 alignment is where the similarities between Kiffin's and Bates' defenses essentially end.
Bates' scheme typically uses size in the middle (defensive tackles) to help pass-rushing defensive ends get after the quarterback while using quick, aggressive linebackers to defend near the line of scrimmage and the short-to-intermediate part of the field. This puts the safeties in position to roam the secondary freely, increasing their chances of defending and intercepting passes.
One of the most important concepts of Bates' defense is in the secondary, where the cornerbacks are required to play bump-and-run man coverage, which is not completely foreign to players like four-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber, but not something the defensive backs did too often under Kiffin.
"Simply put, it's an in-your-face defense from the cornerback's perspective," said free agent cornerback Jamar Fletcher, who played for Bates in Miami from 2001-03. "You play a lot of bump-and-run to disrupt the rhythm of the offenses on about 95 percent of the snaps. I say it's in your face because it's definitely an aggressive style of play."
The Dolphins notched 103 interceptions in five seasons under Bates, which averaged out to 21 picks per year. While the bump-and-run coverage played a significant role in creating so many turnovers, so did some of the wrinkles Bates worked into his defense.
"There were variables thrown in as far as the coverages, and that's what made it so good," said Fletcher. "It was the same look, and even though we were predominately bump-and-run coverage there were coverages that came off it. There were some other things incorporated from week to week depending on the opponent."
Having two established cornerbacks in the defensive backfield kept Fletcher, a 2001 first-round pick, on the sideline more than he would have preferred, but it also helped strike fear in opposing offenses.
"We had two of the better corners in the league in Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison," said Fletcher. "I came in and learned from them. There isn't a lot of foot movement or retreating, or as we call it, ‘motoring,' or backpedaling at the snap. The corners kind of stand their ground. The technique involves taking a side, whether it's inside or outside. You want to be aggressive and force the receivers to have a one-way go. You don't want to receiver dictating to you, you want to dictate where the receiver goes."
Fletcher, 29, was traded to San Diego in 2003. He has spent the past three seasons with Detroit, Houston and Cincinnati, and is currently a free agent.
With the exception of Barber, the Bucs appear to be lacking experience at the cornerback position. While the team is high on second-year CBs Aqib Talib, Elbert Mack and Kyle Arrington, among others, the Bucs have expressed an interest in signing Fletcher, who wouldn't mind reuniting with Bates in Tampa Bay.
"I think it would be a beautiful situation from so many aspects," Fletcher said when asked about possibly signing with Tampa Bay. "I am 29 years old, but I think I move and play this game like a lot of the guys that are 22 in this league. I definitely have the knowledge of the game. I know the system Tampa Bay is running in and out now. I played a little bit of it in Houston. I know the defense like the back of my hand now. I feel like I can bump and press with the best of them. If I did come to Tampa Bay I know nobody would be disappointed.
"I'm a much better player and much more complete player than I was in Miami. I have so much more knowledge of the game. I've learned how to be an exceptional pro. With me it's all about film. I've played some of the best receivers in the game, and some of the best quarterbacks in the game, and I think I've held my own. No matter where I've been I've always been one of the top two or three corners. I wouldn't say that, but I think my film backs that up. My last year [in Miami] I felt I had my best camp and was really coming into my own there. They say you can really tell a lot about a player after their second or third year, and I definitely felt like I was starting to come on there. I learned a lot about the defense, things I didn't know as a rookie or even a second-year player. I have unfinished business regardless of where I play. I feel like my film matches up with a lot of the guys' film out there if you're looking at football."
The cornerbacks are required to play bump-and-run man coverage in Bates' scheme because the goal is to disrupt the timing of the opposing receivers and limit the quarterback's ability to take three-step drops.
Five-to-seven drops put the defensive ends in the best position to pressure and sack the quarterback in Bates' defense because the defensive tackles typically are called on to clog the middle.
So which is more important in Bates' scheme – the cornerback play or the play of the defensive ends?
"We had some great pass rushers and two big guys in the middle in Miami, but the pass rush and cornerback play goes hand-in-hand," said Fletcher. "I wouldn't say the D-line is more important than the cornerback or the cornerback is more important than the D-line. It goes together in this scheme, or at least it needs to in order to be successful."
Bates' system is designed to produce sacks early and often. Miami's defenses ranked in the top five in four of the five seasons Bates served as coordinator. In addition, the Dolphins recorded 212 sacks, which averaged 41 per season.
Retired defensive end Trace Armstrong played for Bates in Miami just one season (2000), but the then-35-year old player thrived, notching a career-high 16.5 sacks en route to making his first and only Pro Bowl in the NFL.
Armstrong and DE Jason Taylor combined for 31 sacks in 2000, which was more than Tampa Bay recorded (29) as a team in 2008.
Armstrong, a former first-round pick, recorded 106.5 career sacks in 16 seasons, but the accomplished player agreed that Bates' would get the best out of players, especially along the defensive line.
"I think it's a great system, and it's great for defensive linemen," said Armstrong. "For me personally, that year was a culmination of a number of things. I had some great players around me that year, and I did for a long time. I was at the point age-wise where my skills hadn't really started to diminish a lot. My knowledge of the game and technique was probably as good that year as it ever was during my whole career. There are a lot of things that go into having a year like that, but Jim will get those guys getting playing well. If you're a defensive end there isn't a better scheme in the NFL to play in than Jim's scheme. These guys should respond with numbers because they're in a great scheme and they're receiving great coaching."
That means a player like Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, should post numbers in 2009 that rival his sack total (12.5) from his first two seasons with the Bucs.
The Bucs elected to pass on the opportunity to sign Taylor, 34, in free agency. He is back in Miami. And don't expect Tampa Bay to lure Armstrong out of retirement. The 43-year old former player currently serves as an agent, representing NFL and Major League Baseball coaches, as well as some television broadcasters.
Armstrong believes Adams and DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who established himself as one of Tampa Bay's better pass rushers in 2008 and is in a contract year, can max out in Bates' defense, especially if the cornerbacks are doing their part.
"It really does go hand-in-hand," Armstrong said of the cornerback and defensive end play. "You can't get good pressure without good coverage, and you can't get coverage without pressure. One of the great things about the bump-and-run is it really forces a quarterback to drop back and read a coverage, which allows the defensive line time to get there."
The sack numbers posted under Bates are impressive (the Packers posted 37 in 2007), but it is just one part of his defensive scheme. Just as important is stopping the run, which is an assignment defensive tackles Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan will be largely responsible for.
"We were a very solid run team back then," said Armstrong. "That really starts with the two inside guys. They have to be great at the point of attack. They have to keep holes clean so the linebackers can read flow and hit their gaps. To play the run well you have got to have great play out of those two inside guys."
The defensive tackles played an integral role in Thomas' success in Miami. Thomas was a tackle machine in Miami, especially under Bates, where he made four of the seven Pro Bowls he's been voted to.
Thomas was a free agent this offseason, and while he would have loved to play for Bates again, he said it wasn't really an option since he wanted to play middle linebacker and believes Tampa Bay has a special one in Barrett Ruud.
"The system is linebacker-friendly," said Thomas, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. "The Bucs have a great linebacker in Barrett Ruud, and if you have good guys up front it frees you up and all you have to do is make the tackles."
Bates will design different blitzes for his defense, but how much those plays are called will depend on how effective the defensive ends are from a pass-rushing standpoint.
Miami didn't have to call a lot of blitzes under Bates because its pass rush was so effective, but Thomas made his opportunities count, registering eight of his 20.5 career sacks in Miami from 2000-04.
"Not a lot because we had the rushing ends and we could match routes," Thomas said when asked how much he was asked to blitz in Bates' scheme. "We had some change-ups, and we did have some blitz packages designed, but we didn't have to use them a lot. Our offense wasn't very good, so there were times in games where he felt the defense needed to make something happen, so he would dial up a blitz or different things. Jim always had us prepared. I always felt like I was the most prepared player on the field under Coach Bates."
Bates will also attempt to confuse opposing offenses by occasionally abandoning the 4-3 alignment for some different fronts, including the 3-4 look in some obvious passing situations.
"We played some three-man fronts," said Armstrong. "It was really productive for us. I don't want to give away any of Jim's secrets, but we used a three-man front a lot of times in nickel and combined it with pressure. We gave what we called "three-man looks" and then we'd rush four. We did a fair amount of that on third downs."
One of the things Bates does best, according to his former players, is adjust his defensive game plan based on what the offense is doing during a contest.
"He's really good at making changes during the game," said Thomas. "By halftime he always knew exactly how teams were trying to attack us, and he always seemed to have plays and blitzes to counter it. I don't know how he did it, but he did. When we were in Miami we had dominate defenses under Bates. I admire him. You saw what he did in just one year in Green Bay. Within in that one year they were a top 10 defense. He gets the best out of your defense and works it to your strengths."
Adjusting his scheme to his players' strengths could be a challenge for Bates, whose defense includes just two players – Barber and Hovan – that are over the age of 30. With players like Talib, Sabby Piscitelli, Tanard Jackson and Quincy Black having three or less years of experience, some wonder how good Bates' defense can be in his first year in Tampa Bay.
"Our Miami team wasn't quite as young as the Tampa Bay team right now," said Fletcher. "A lot of the guys we had in Miami were in their prime. There were even some guys that had played in that system before. It's not impossible, but I definitely believe it will take some time. You have to get everybody on the same page. I think the system is actually pretty friendly and easy to learn. At the end of the day it's a man-up situation."
While he agreed with Fletcher that a learning curve would be involved, Armstrong believes Bates' system would help accelerate it, even for some of the younger Bucs players.
"That's where the scheme comes in," said Armstrong. "It's fairly simple. You play a couple of fronts, a few dozen pressures out of those fronts and you're going to do it over and over again until you become proficient at it. The style fits really well with young players."
The Dolphins had a total of 18 Pro Bowlers in five years under Bates, which helps explain why Miami was able to rank in the top 10 in total defense each year.
There's no doubt Bates had some very talented players to work with, but his former players dispute the notion that they were the sole reason for Miami's defensive success. They point to the fact that Green Bay had the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL in Bates' first year there.
"You've got to have talent, no matter what the defense is," said Thomas. "But Coach Bates' scheme works. No doubt. He always tried to simplify it for guys because he wanted them playing hard and not thinking a lot. That makes it easier for the guys. If the offense is going to beat you they're going to have to overpower you. He would simplify it for guys, even for myself. I felt like I was not thinking and just running around on a playground playing football back in third grade. He did that for the D-line, the linebackers and the DBs. He did a lot of different things to help us win a lot of games because of the defense."
Thomas believes the Bucs do have some talented players on their defense, including Ruud, who is in a contract year and has made it known he wants a long-term commitment from Tampa Bay. Ruud skipped 14 voluntary organized team activities to make that point known to Bucs general manager Mark Dominik.
The 2005 second-round pick could earn himself a lucrative contract if the numbers he posts resemble anything close to the type of production Thomas had with Bates.
"Barrett won't miss a beat," Thomas said of Ruud skipping OTAs. "I've watched him play and he's a good player. I am a fan of his game. Coach Bates will have him prepared, and Barrett will love this defense. He's going to have a lot of fun. Barrett will be just as good – if not better – than what you've seen before. I can promise you that.
"We played our defensive ends really wide, and that can open up the running lanes a little bit and put more pressure on the inside, but we had the tackles to do that. I'm not sure how they're going to run it in Tampa, but I can't imagine it would be much different. As long as Barrett stays healthy, this defense is a middle linebacker's dream to play. Damn, I miss playing in that defense. When you're dominating games it's fun. We didn't have the offense, but I give Jim Bates a lot of credit for helping the Miami defense dominate so long."