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.