Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.

Sikkema’s Stat of the Week

This week’s Cover 3 is more short and sweet than it is a novel of schematic breakdowns like I’ve published in the past – I can just hear the hallelujahs from Mark Cook as he reads this opening statement, since he’s always the one who has to edit my columns. Even though this one is easier to explain, it’s definitely something I wanted to make sure I touched on before we wrapped up our Cover 3 draft class series heading into training camp.

This week’s topic can be summed up in a playful phrase that I’ve been using for a few months now and that is: You can’t teach girth.

I started using this phrase when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed interest in, and eventually signed, defensive tackle, Chris Baker. Baker, at 6-foot-2 and well over 300 pounds, is not the typical defensive lineman the Bucs are used to prioritizing. But, by giving Baker the contract they did and signing him as early as they did, that appeared to be exactly what they were doing. Following Baker’s signing, the media asked the coaching staff, both head coach, Dirk Koetter, and defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, why this was the move over other players. Both explained that there was a need for this team to get bigger along the defensive front.

There’s a simple question that follows such an answer.

Why?

What’s the deal emphasizing such size? Does it really mater all that much? I mean, defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald were right around 300 pounds. Does it need to get much bigger? The short answer is yes, but in order to understand that yes, we need to know why size, in fact, matters along an NFL defensive front.

Stop The Run

We read a lot about spread offenses and quarterbacks changing the game and breaking all sorts of passing records and how fast the game has become with the no huddle and spread game plans. That’s all great, and it makes the NFL a fun product, but none of that is possible, even in today’s NFL, if you can’t run the ball.

Running the ball is the No. 1 priority in football. Think about it, if you can get yards running he ball, what’s easier than just handing the ball to a guy and telling him to move forward? There’s no coverage to digest, no timing needed, no separation on a route, no pocket to form, no velocity to gauge. There’s just a snap, an exchange and the yards.

This is why stopping the run is still the top priority for a defense, and the most important down where a defense needs to make sure they shut down the run isn’t 2nd-and-6, it isn’t 3rd-and-2, it’s 1st-and-10. If a defense can’t contain an offense to less than three yards per carry on first down, it’s going to be a long day for them.

Think about it. Running the ball at an average of more than four yards per carry on first down means that an offense is in 2nd-and-6 or 2nd-and-5 almost at will. You don’t think offense’s in the NFL can pick up five yards in two tries, especially when, if they ran it again, chances are they’d get at least three more yards?

In the chart above – took you long enough to reference it, Trev – we see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ yards-per-run average from each of the downs during the 2016 season. As you can tell, those averages on first down are way too high.

This next chart shows the total rushing yards gained on first down by each defense. The Buccaneers came in as the seventh-worst in this category, but it’s actually worse than that. Even though they were seventh in total yards, they had less first down run plays called against them than some of the teams lower on that chart. If you average things out, only San Francisco, Washington and Miami had worse averages in terms of rush yards given up on first down.

So how do you get better at that? Well, ideally you’d like to get more bodies in the box to overwhelm the offense and stop plays closer to the line of scrimmage. However, in today’s NFL where teams can have three wide receivers on the field and still run the ball, taking bodies at the second and secondary levels away from coverage, via substitute or what have you, would open up a defense to get gashed in the passing game – it’s a mismatch age.

The only other solution is the theme of the Buccaneers offseason: Get bigger up front.

Getting bigger up front allows a defense to do a few things – things that could go really far in Tampa Bay. The first is that it frees up the linebackers. When you have bigger players up front, chances are they’re going to be able to take on more than one block, therefore controlling the point of attack at the line of scrimmage. If the Buccaneers ever want to put themselves in a scenario where their defensive line is McCoy, Baker, McDonald and Gholston, that’s a lot of mass on the line of scrimmage. Chances are that group can take up all five offensive linemen, and that would allow for athletic, instinctual linebackers to track a ball carrier, rather than having to worry about plugging up holes. This is a much more advantageous approach for Tampa Bay because of the personnel they have at linebacker with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.

The second is a point I sort of alluded to in the paragraph above, but it’s creativity.

Throughout the offseason we’ve talked about the Buccaneers getting more creative on defense, mostly with their fronts as a team that could go either 3-4 or 4-3. We’ve gone into detail about what kind of players it takes to run each of those base formations, but with more size up front the team can even afford to get more creative (or ideal) in certain situations.

Three Safety Look

This is a question that has been asked of me recently, so I’ll explain it a bit here.

With more size up front, the Buccaneers would have the opportunity to play some three safety sets like the Patriots did last year where the third safety could have safety or corner responsibilities depending on the play. This would most likely be a role that rookie, Justin Evans, would assume if he progressed enough to get serious playing time this season. The Patriots had a lot of success doing this largely because they had the mass up front.

However, the team could also opt to play from a three safety look in a more unique manner. Something I saw in the Buccaneers mini camp was the team using a heavy front four with some sort of combination of McCoy, McDonald, Baker, Gholston or Ayers, then having Keith Tandy and Chris Conte as the main safeties, but using J.J. Wilcox as the nickel man up by the line of scrimmage, almost like a SAM linebacker only faster. If you have the size to take up most of the gaps already thanks to a bigger front four, you can get away with a cheeky move like using a big-bodied safety in a SAM spot who can also cover a running back out of the backfield better than a traditional, run-stopping linebacker – Bond has struggled in coverage from what I’ve seen.

46 Bear Front

(via Buffalo Rumblings)

Finally let’s talk about a formation that is used for short yardage situations and that is the Bear Front or the 46 defense. The 46 defense is a defense that involves a heavy front four, three or four linebackers that know how to stop the run and a strong safety in the box as well. The name of the 46 (and why it’s called the “Bear” front) comes from when Bears’ defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, created the formation and emphasized strong safety, Doug Plank, who wore the No. 46.

The graphic above shows a traditional 46 defense. It comes from the 3-4 defensive front family where there is one nose tackle and two defensive ends. But, as the NFL has evolved, so has the Bear front.

This is what it looks like today.

(via Buffalo Rumblings)

The above formation is much more suited to what the Buccaneers would like to run but have never really had the personnel top do so. In it, instead of one massive defensive tackle, you’ll have two. These are the roles that can now be played by Baker and say Stevie Tu’ikolovatu or Sealver Siliga. Then, you can have McCoy playing as the strong side defensive end with Gholston as the weak side defensive end. This would allow the SAM linebacker to also help at the line of scrimmage and would fully free up the two linebackers, Alexander and David, to be instinct-based rather than gap stuffers, even in short yardage situation.

The NFL is a bully league; the big man wins. The more size you have in the trenches – especially if they’re players with size, strength and can move well – the more freedom you have to let the other athletes on the defense do what they do best. The less bodies you need to control the line of scrimmage and stop the run, the better your coverage will be, and the more creative you can be in what players you send out there with different responsibilities.

When defensive coordinator Smith talked about getting more versatile and creative on the defensive side of the ball, the first step to that was getting bigger up front. Now you know why.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: trevor@pewterreport.com
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Horse
4 years ago

Trevor, you have been great! Mark would be nuts not to let you continue with this series and here’s why? Where else can you get this kind of explanation as to what is required to play in the NFL based on the existing scheme’s. You do your homework! Plain and simple. So now i’m going to ask a question because this one has been bothering for a year. We have two small LB’s even though they are good, they are still small at the LOS; we have two small DE’s (Spence & J. Smith) at the LOS, they are average… Read more »

Wausa
4 years ago

Trevor I would be interested in an analysis of some of the plays where Jameis did not have an open receiver that caused him to have a negative play and what a difference the new weapons on offense potentially could make to turn those negative plays into a positive play.

Wausa
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

Thanks Trevor!

Iowabucfan
4 years ago

I enjoyed your dissection of the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive fronts. I also enjoyed the different ol line formations and blocking styles. You should put this in a book!
I would like to see more stuff on the quarterback’s pre-snap reads.
I love guys like Stevie T. who took lemons and made it into lemonade. He didn’t play the victim card. He and his wife used it as an opportunity to do things they always wanted to do. Good for him. I will be cheering for him. Maybe that’s my next jersey purchase.
Go Bucs!

Alldaway 2.0
4 years ago

Tu’ikolovatu shows stamina that is surprising when you turn on the tape. Between Tu’ikolovatu and Siliga the Bucs have a training battle that will go down the wire till the final pre season game IMO. If you ask me the best defense this team has seen has been when Booger played next to Sapp. Booger had that leverage edge due to his height which is a similar trait I see from Tu’ikolovatu. Siliga is underrated by Bucs fans but I think I am underrating how good Tu’ikolovatu can be with some NFL weight training and coaching. Between Baker, McDonald, McCoy,… Read more »

Rut
Rut
4 years ago

Trevor, this is pretty unrelated, but I suppose it relates when talking about the 46 and use of the Bucs safeties. Why oh why oh why the heck are the Bucs using Conte at free safety and Tandy at strong? Is there some kind of NFL knowledge I’m lacking here? Every time I watch “tape” (game replays and highlights, I don’t have access to the all 22), I see Conte making plays in a strong safety role up by the line of scrimmage or the first down line, and getting absolutely toasted on the back end when he’s free. I’m… Read more »

Rut
Rut
Reply to  Rut
4 years ago

Forgot to add that Tandy misses way more tackles within 10-15 yards then Conte does. Conte makes those tackles, it’s when he gets beat on quick breaks and double moves that he let’s guys get free into the next level. Tandy misses those short field tackles but rarely let guys get out of his hands when it was more than 15 yards downfield. Meanwhile I’ve watched Conte flat out miss guys and let them stroll right into the end zone on 30+ yards pass plays. I just don’t get what my eyes see, and then what the bucs list these… Read more »

Rut
Rut
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

Thanks for the reply. I trust Mike Smith, there must be something we’re not seeing, like maybe Conte has a better mental grasp of the free spot, and impresses when quizzed on it or something. I know Smith says he likes his guys to be interchangable, and Conte did seem to play strong more often, so maybe the depth chart spot is a title only, just to throw other teams off a little bit, I don’t know. I like the duo as well though, but I would like to see Wilcox over Conte. Dallas defense has actually been pretty underrated… Read more »

76Buc
4 years ago

I believe Rut has an office somewhere at One Buc.

Rut
Rut
Reply to  76Buc
4 years ago

Oh man I wish 😃

I lived in Tampa from 2010 to 2013 but I’m an Arizona man now. Thank god for Pewter Report, all you can get out here is crummy Cardinals news. 👎👎👎👎 hahaha

scubog
Reply to  Rut
4 years ago

You should hook up with fellow poster jon gruden, who also lives in the desert.

tnew
4 years ago

This is turning in to my favorite segment in all of Tampa Bay sports. Very professionally executed and well-edited. Thank you as well for noticing things like the heavy 4 up front. I have felt for a little while, the undertackle in a 4-3 has been negated by scheme. Yes he gets penetration but many times it seems like he is allowed to and because he is so quick to disengage, two free offensive lineman are allowed to get to the linebackers. Having a coach like Mike Smith that has creativity in personnel and scheme is impossible to quantify. This… Read more »

Ken Grant
4 years ago

Well, you’ve done an article about fronts and gap responsibilities. How about one regarding coverage? Man, zone, press, off, hybrid, brackets, etc. What type of shells teams employ. How to diagnose looks pre-snap. What quarterbacks are looking for. Maybe some technique talk. Let’s go back to football school.

Justin2626
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

Hey Trevor, I will second this request! I would love an in-depth look at the Xs and Os of coverage. Perhaps even going into some of the unique looks employed when facing an almost uncover-able WR like Julio Jones.

toofamiliar17
Reply to  Ken Grant
4 years ago

To kinda build off this idea – you could do a piece on our specific coverage schemes. Go into specifically WHY small, quick corners with good feet make the most sense for us. Explain the coverage concepts that we really aren’t suited for due to such choices, and which schemes we’re most naturally built to execute as a result of the same choices. For example – it’s really easy for the uneducated fan to clamor for us to mimic Seattle’s cover 3, but the reality is that we just don’t have the personnel to execute such a concept on a… Read more »

scubog
4 years ago

Trev: One of the things that used to crack me up during the John McKay era was folks claiming that the early Buccaneers ran “college plays” (28 pitch, aka student body right) and played a “college defense” (3-4 front). When I would hear that I always challenged the spewer of the comment to draw me up a college play and a pro play and explain the difference. None made the attempt. Can you take on the challenge? The other oft regurgitated comment I hear when a play is unsuccessful is that the observer “can predict the play because the offense… Read more »

Naplesfan
4 years ago

Trevor – another great chapter in your “NFL explained” series.

I’d enjoy seeing a similar treatment of the quarterback position, specifically how a quarterback reads defenses to change the play at the LOS.

BucsPhan2Phear
4 years ago

These cover 3 articles are the SINGLE only reason I come to pewter report. Trevor, maybe you should look for a new ship to sail with instead of pewter report. We know they gave you your shot, but they’ll chew you up and spit you out later. Get some security man. Nobody in Tampa likes or trust Scott Reynolds. The players talk about him behind his back and only speak to him because they want to have him as a resource later if they need to. You got a really good thing going man. The Stick Carriers like you lol.… Read more »

Rut
Rut
Reply to  BucsPhan2Phear
4 years ago

I hear what you’re saying but there’s no reason to slam this guy’s co-worker right on his site. How do you expect him to reply to that? Thats probably more suited for a private message dude. Scott Reynolds has been doing this a long time so he must be doing something right. Besides, Pewter Report is the only Bucs site that isn’t HEAVILY opinionated. Obviously their opinions make their way in here and there, but they leave most of that for the podcasts, and the articles are pretty informative and professional. I like this trio of Reynolds, Cook, Sikkema, I… Read more »

toofamiliar17
Reply to  BucsPhan2Phear
4 years ago

Jeez, man. Brutal. I kinda get an OUNCE of your dislike for Scott, but you take it to the millionth exponent, well beyond anything that’s . Your comment is mean spirited and unfair in every way. It puts Trevor in a very awkward position, and it’s a backhanded way of openly insulting Scott in a cruel, vicious manner. It really just makes you look like a jerk. There is no reason for an attack this personal. Scott, if you’re reading this – you probably know that I’m not your BIGGEST fan. But please know, even most of those who are… Read more »

Cody
4 years ago

Hey Trevor,

I’ve been reading your articles the past few months and have really enjoyed them (I’m also incredibly jealous of your job). So I finally decided to create an account and start giving some feedback and thoughts. In relation to this one, how about starting to break down future opponents of the Bucs? I’m so ready for the upcoming season that it would be really fun to read about your thoughts on how you would attack different defensive schemes that the Patriots show or what would be a part of a gameplan to stop the Giants receiving corps.

Cody
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

Awesome. Thanks man!

Chad Spitza
4 years ago

Finally, I walked the plank and joined PR as a registered user. Incredible job writing the Cover 3 columns at a level football junkies, average Joe buccs fans, and newbies can all understand. Being from far far away GB Packer country, I have not enjoyed football coverage more than this column has provided me in a time football news simply sucks… seasonally speaking and seemingly any large media station – wise. Great Job, keep it up. One topic I would love to look at in-depth, Jamies’ long ball. I know it has certainly been touched on before – I think… Read more »

David DeLeon
4 years ago

Cover 3 has become my favorite segment. I appreciate all the detail and time you put into it 👍. What ever you write about, I’ll just eat it up! Maybe something on Jameis, I think somebody mentioned also of how the new lineup might benefit the offense.

fredster
4 years ago

Great read I’ve enjoyed all the cover 3’s and have learned a few things. I knew Bucs used to run some 46 in the Kiffin good old days and I basically know what it is (and from playing Madden Football) lol, but I didnt know all the history with the Bears etc.

I’ll have to think on future ones that would be interesting. Maybe some more in depth QB related things would be cool.

Rhonda72
4 years ago

Absolutely love these Cover 3 pieces each week! Truly appreciate your work & knowledge giving us a unique look at what our players and team does or can do. I’ll definitely devour anything- different positions perspective, as mentioned for our QB, breakdown of our division rivals and any x’s & o’s I can learn more about, like the excellent defense 3-4& 4-3 piece! Many thanks Trevor and I’m looking forward to many more!

toofamiliar17
4 years ago

You’ve done work similar to this with JR Sweezy, but I’d appreciate an in depth look at Donovan Smith. PFF recently published the tidbit that although Donovan finished the season with a very poor overall grade (both overall and in pass blocking), he was actually their 8th highest graded pass blocking OT over the second half of last season. I’d really like a Cover 3 that highlights Smith’s strengths and weaknesses*, as well as a general look at his play last season, and maybe with an emphasis on those last 8 games over which he improved. *One weakness I’d like… Read more »

tjhuth
4 years ago

Great in depth article. The technical breakdown was exceptional. I agree with all the posters on reversing roles for Conte/Tandy. Not sure what we are all missing. Smith must have some solid football guru reason for not switching that makes sense, just not to me. One thing not being discussed is that the BUCs have yet another year in Smith’s D. That fact alone should make for a better defense as the players get more and more comfortable in his defense. Since Smith will probably be offered a head coaching job after this season, this has to be the year!… Read more »

Horse
4 years ago

Trevor, what I see for this Season is we are a solid 9-7 team and might get 1 or 2 more wins. Your take?

kram0789
4 years ago

Trevor, you are a very good writer, much better than anyone else at PR. You consistently bring up nuances of the game and explain them very well. I laughed at your comment about long articles because yours are the shortest on PR. Honestly the other guys could lose 60% of what they write without losing any useful content. You on the other hand do not repeat your points. You are succinct and to the point. Thank you for making it easy and fun to learn more about football.