On Wednesday afternoon at One Buccaneer Place, three of the members of the Tampa Bay organization took to the podium to answer questions from the media.
The first was defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who was in front of the media for the first time since he publicly accepted the extension to remain in Tampa Bay and stay on as the Bucs defensive coordinator, rather than take a head coaching gig somewhere else.
“I’m very excited about being here,” Smith said. “I think it’s absolutely the best decision for me and my family. Working with Dirk is a joy. Working with these guys is really fun. I’m excited about what we’ve got to improve on and get better at.”
The “improve on” part is something that every coach says, but the leap from year one to year two of Smith’s defense is going to look at lot different than it did a year ago. Smith said that the team in no longer having to start from ground zero. He said the key players already know their base assignments and even the assignments of others on the defense.
“I do think that as we’ve started this offseason program, the knowledge of what our players have and what they’ve been able to retain from last season to this season has been very good,” Smith said. “We’re not starting at 2+2=4, we’re on to calculus… We’re able to install a lot quicker. We’re going to put in a few wrinkles and hopefully it will be effective. The big thing for us is that we know these guy now; we know what they’re capable of, and we’ve also added guys who we think can help us at all three levels.”
Bucs LBs Lavont David & Kwon Alexander, CB Alterraun Verner – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
The difference between year one and year two – and something even Lavonte David referenced later in the press conference – is that players aren’t only focusing on their job within a defense, but rather, focusing on the job of the defense as a whole. Smith said that communication is the key to that, and though it got better last season, they still have a ways to go.
“I think when guys aren’t sure of what their jobs is, they don’t want to talk, because they don’t want to be wrong,” Smith said. “And I’ve told them that we’ve got to get over that. We’ve got to go through this learning process that you do as a defensive football team.”
Smith made light of this by saying that his players (of a younger generation) are better at communicating with their phones than they are communicating with each other. He made a joke that if the players could take their phones out on the field during plays they’d probably communicate better.
When asked about an example he may have had off the top of his head about a time he thought the defense communicated well during the 2016 season, he went all the way back to Week 10 against the Bears.
“One play that sticks out to me was in the Chicago game,” Smith said. “We had a certain way that we picked up a route. They were driving, they were in our red zone and Chris Conte got an interception because we were communicating pre-snap about the formation.”
Speaking of defensive backs, Smith was asked about the potential role of newly-signed Buccaneer Robert McClain, a player who he coached in Atlanta.
“We brought Robert in here to compete at the [outside] corner and nickel position,” Smith said. “He played nickel in Atlanta. He’s got a number of starts [at nickel]. He started in the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers at nickel corner, so he’s got a good pedigree. He’s in here to compete… We have to cross train him to play outside corner as well.”
Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
One of the outside corners who was getting a lot of attention (the most attention in the entire NFL, even) was rookie Vernon Hargreaves. Smith was asked about what he thought of Hargreaves year giving up the most receptions and yards in the NFL, and what his future holds
“Well, I thought Vernon did a very nice job last year,” Smith said. “When you have Brent Grimes on the other side, it’s not [a negative] on Vernon’s talent, it’s a compliment to Brent’s talent on the other side. I think Vernon needs to have a better understanding and awareness of situations. We expect Vernon to come out and be very agressive [this year]. A corner has to be aggressive. He plays with confidence and passion. He’s going to be a good football player for us.”
One of the questions asked of Smith at the press conference was to give his opinion on what it’s like, as a defensive coordinator, going up against a team that runs out of two tight ends sets like the Buccaneers’ offense is looking to do a lot of this season. Smith elaborated on how difficult facing that kind of offense is for defensive coordinators.
“Well, it allows you as an offense to present yourself in run formation and you can pass out of them, or they could be pass formations that you can run out of, then you start creating mismatches,” Smith said. “Most nickels are third corners and sometimes you have a difficult time matching that nickel up [on a tight end], so you have to go with a bigger body. Having to defend two tight end formations is very difficult because of the amount of looks you can get.”
Another player Smith spoke highly of in terms of potential and outlook was pass rusher Noah Spence. Smith talked about how they really liked Spence as a prospect last year, but after having him in the building for a year, he’s even better than they hoped.
“He’s one tough dude, I’ll tell you,” Smith said. ” The injury that he played through at the beginning of the season shows how tough he is. He’s a guy we’re expecting big things from. Unfortunately he’s not going to be able to participate with us until training camp (league rules, not injury). But, he is more – much more – than we anticipated as a three-down linebacker.”
An interesting part about that quote was that Smith called Spence a linebacker, not a defensive end. That would typically be what you’d call a player of Spence’s role in a 3-4 not a 4-3. We here at PewterReport.com have spoken about and answered questions regarding the possible switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base for this team with the type of players they’ve brought in. We’ve expressed that, though Mike Smith wants to be as versatile as possible, he’s still going to stay in a 4-3 base.
In his final question of the day, Smith touched on that topic a bit, but sounded even more fluid in their fronts and base formations than we thought he’d be.
“We don’t have 11 starters, we’ve got 14 or 15 starters, because there’s going to be guys starting on on 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-8 that are going to be off the field on 3rd-and-5… Robert [Ayers] gives us a lot of flexibility. He can move inside and play defensive tackle for us when we are in our sub-package. He can also rush from the outside… [Chris Baker and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu] are also two guys who aren’t just going to play on first and second down even though they’re 300-plus pounds. I think Stevie can move out and play some 5-technique; we known that Baker can. We’re trying to get into a situation where we have as much flexibility as we possibility can with guys who are dressed out on defense.”
When running multiple looks and fronts in one playbook, it’s no wonder why communication is everything. And with the team starting off ahead of the curve in terms of last year, expect to see even more creativity and production from the defense in year two of Mike Smith.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
OK, What am I missing thats preventing Spence from particiapting in anything until training camp?
Shoulder surgery for torn labrum.
Again, since when do nfl league rules prevent a player from practicing prior to TC because of an off season surgery? Also, all players get to participate in OTAs and mini camps prior to TC unless they are one of the rookies dealing with some college rule stuff. It still isnt making sense from a NFL RULE perspective. Trevor?
I know you addressed this question to Trevor and I now understand the import of your question. I know of no league rule that would prevent any player from practicing before training camp other than the completed semester rule for rookies that you mention. There are league rules that prevent an injured player from practicing until cleared by medical staff to participate. That is why some teams release players for failed physicals.
This may be a distinction without a difference since Spence will not complete rehab and be released by team physicians until training camp. May be best to let Trevor explain what he meant, but like you, I know of no rule. Good Luck Trevor! lol.
Smitty is huge for this team.
I didn’t realize Hargreaves led the league in receptions against him including most yards. What’s the issue with Spence not practicing?
ESPN Staff Writer
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Noah Spence won’t be able to start practicing with the team until training camp due to his right shoulder injury. He underwent surgery in January to repair a fully-torn labrum. He has been at the facility daily rehabbing it.
NFL rules no vets can practice until TC. Stevie T playing 5 tech? Bizzare comment from Smith right at the end there.
I think what you’re referring to is the NFL rules against contact until training camp. Obviously, all players practice during OTAs, but there are very strict rules as to what can be done and how much time per day is spent doing it. Teams have lost draft picks for violating the rules.
The defense in particular hates these rules. Training camp and the preseason are where teams can really make the most educated decisions and evaluations of their rosters especially the defense. There’s no substitute for seeing how players perform once the pads go on and in live-game situations.
Re Stevie T. and Chris Baker as 5 techs, it is no secret that Smith wants to play more 3-4 this year – 4-3 base but some 3-4 fronts aka hybrid defense. Will be interested to see how that works. Us old-timers remember David Lewis and Richard “Batman” wood from the McKay USC 3-4 defense – didn’t win much but was fun to watch. Lol.
I remember those days macabee. Folks called the 3-4 a “college defense”. Soon other teams adopted the system. Of course people would claim the offense ran college plays such as 28 Pitch (aka student body right). I used to ask those who made the comment to draw me up a college play and a pro play and explain the difference. No one ever did. I actually have a legal pad with hand-written plays that MacKay left behind when he moved from his home on Bayshore.
Team didn’t win much from 1976 to 1978 but that defense in 1978 was # 3 in the league and in 1979 it was # 1.
I understand the potential appeal of running some 3-4 sets. Diverse looks = surprising opponents = more difficult to gameplan for, etc. The downside, though, is that you’re giving these guys more to do, more roles to perfect, more techniques to have to be able to command. McCoy has been a 3 tech his entire career, and he’s great at it. I’m not sure I like the idea of him learning a new role as a 5 or 4i tech at this point in his career. Similarly, we’re presumably going to have Spence rush as a DE out of 4-3 looks, but also learn to rush from a 2 point stance at the same time, and maybe occasionally drop into space.
And despite adding some players that would better fit the traits you want from 3-4 defenders as opposed to 4-3 defenders within your front 7, we’re still lacking, IMO. I’m not even sure McCoy CAN play as a 5 or 4i tech well. He really doesn’t have either the length to reach or the lower body to anchor as a 2-gap DE. I can see Stevie filling the 0 tech role and 2 gapping very well, but Smith called him a 5 tech, which doesn’t make any sense to me. The Ghoul could play the other DE spot well. But our LB group….ugh. I guess any of Spence, Smith, and maybe Ayers could rush as OLBs, but Ayers was bad at that after being drafted. Him being used that way kinda killed the early part of his career. And there really aren’t any great places for Kwon and Lavonte, two of our best defenders, as 3-4 LBs. They can play roles there, but it doesn’t fit their strengths. Beckwith can obviously play in a 3-4, but do you really want to run looks that basically limit GMC and swap out one of Kwon or David for BECKWITH? Come on, man.
So really, you’re going to be playing AGAINST the strengths of what are likely 3 of our 4 best defensive players – GMC, LVD, and Kwon – when you go to a 3-4. And again, you’re going to be expecting most of the guys on your defense to play two different positions and play them well.
I won’t mind the occasional 3-4 look just to confuse offenses. But our best players are clearly naturally suited to play in 4-3 alignments. It doesn’t make any sense to me to put a major focus on running a lot of 3-4 concepts. If we do, it’ll be a big mistake.
I love the idea of occasionally running a 3-4 look. I think McCoy, Ayers, Baker, and Gholston could all play DE in that scheme, and Stevie T, Baker, and McDonald can play the nose. To address your concern with linebackers, I think Lavonte would play the Sam, Spence would play the Buck, and Kwon and Beckwith play inside. I really like the depth and flexibility up front, and think Smitty will make it difficult for offenses to gameplan against us.
I like Smitty’s idea of running different sets, because it keeps the offense off balance.
The Steelers have run the same 3-4 defense with zone coverage against the Patriots for years and every post season Tom Brady and the Patriots come in and slice and dice them apart like a piece of cheap cheese on the way to another Super Bowl.
You think after all these years they would get a clue.
This was also one of the key problems of the Bucs when they would continuously run out of the Cover 2.
QB comes to the line, sees Cover 2 and knows immediately how to attack it.
Of course you have to have the personnel who have the versatility to play out of different fronts and the players have to be unselfish which is not common in today’s ego driven narcissistic times.
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