Call it disciplined aggressiveness. At least that’s the gist of what Tampa Bay Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said his team needs to display if it intends to become an effective unit.
That balancing act starts with him on down to his defensive assistants and the players executing on the field.
“I think we have to be a more aggressive team, not only in the play calling, but we’ve got to be aggressive in our mindset and be aware of where we are on the field, what the down and distance is,” Smith said this week when asked about rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, but expanded his response to the entire defense.
“I think as a young player, sometimes you get overwhelmed as the game goes on. But we’ve got to be focused on what we’re defending, what we’re defending formationally, and there’s the right time to be aggressive and then there’s the right time to sit back and make sure that we are going to let them throw it in front of us. There were a couple of times that we were probably too aggressive and we missed some tackles, but overall I think as a unit we need to be more in-tune to when we can be aggressive and challenge.”
Not helping matters has been the inability of Tampa Bay’s offense to protect the football. That puts the defense in some precarious positions, like its four previous opponents starting eight drives at their own 40 or closer, including five at the Bucs 27 or closer. But it’s a growing list of injuries that’s really taking its toll on establishing continuity.
The defensive line is particularly decimated at the moment. Saturday’s final injury report listed defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald and defensive end Robert Ayers Jr. as doubtful and Noah Spence as questionable for Monday night’s primetime showdown in Carolina. Starting cornerback Brent Grimes and backup safety Keith Tandy also found themselves on injury reports this week and are listed as questionable.
Smith, who’s about as optimistic as anyone at One Buc Place, spun the ugly injury situation as a chance for other players to get snaps, but also acknowledged the deficiencies.
“We’ve got some guys banged up, there’s no doubt about that,” Smith said. “We are certainly hoping that we get some guys back for us then be ready to play. I don’t know who they’re going to be right now, but I’m sure as we get through this weekend, we’ll get some good news. It’s one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity, as I’ve said. And guys are going to get opportunities to play some significant snaps this week that [they] probably weren’t going to play last week.”
How the backups and newcomers along the defensive line respond to Smith’s call for disciplined aggressiveness could be a key to keeping the Panthers’ offense in check Monday. Problems have arisen with the front seven not fulfilling proper assignments and watching opponents rip of big gains. Recent free agent signee John Hughes III, second-year backup Howard Jones and rookies DaVonte Lambert and Channing Ward may all be asked to execute the defensive game plan.
“We’ve got to tighten some things up, in terms of our aggressiveness in both coverage and in defending the run,” Smith said. “There’s too many leaky runs – seven-, eight-yard runs. Even though they were under three yards per carry, there was a period of time that we did not play our gaps and we weren’t as stout as we needed to be.”