Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
“ why do you play this game? Why are you here? What did you want to get out of this game? Are you in it for the cars you can drive? The money you get? Because there’s only so much money you can get and you can’t drive but one car at a time.
“It’s got to be something bigger than that and you got to find that and if not, you have to be man enough to say, ‘This is not going to work for me because this is the ultimate team sport.’ You can’t be about I. You can’t be, ‘Well, I didn’t make a tackle.’ We don’t count that. We count wins. We count having success.” — Brentson Buckner
There are narratives that exists on each side of the football.
On the offensive side, you have the tacticians. You have the players who score the points; the ones that get the individual glory. You have the statistics and creativity to be unique and renown. You have the flash and the fame; you have the brains and the names. Yes, there’s a physicality to playing offense, especially along the trenches. I’m not trying to say there isn’t. But, the narrative with offensive players is that they’re the ones that get to take the glory in success in a sophisticated manner — it’s a chess plan coming to fruition.
When you flip sides, things have a tendency to look different as a counter. On the defensive side of the ball, you have the the players who have the guts to be great with little glory as a guarantee. You have gap assignments, double teams and gang tackles. You have trash talk before and after every play — whether you even made an impact or not. You play head games with the offense. You never back down. You play with a purpose and a passion that is evident on every play. And, of course, you’re only as good as your weakest man, so it’s the unit’s job to band together and get the most out of it.
From as many accounts as I’ve been able to gather, coming from writers, players and coaches, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, a former NFL defensive tackle that spent the last five years coaching the defensive line in Arizona, is the kind of man who you want fueling a defensive narrative.
“I told them, ‘Honestly, I never make up stuff to make you look bad,’” Buckner said. “‘I’m never going to make up stuff to make you look good. I’m a mirror. Whatever you showed me I’m going to show you a reflection. If you show me a bad play, I’m going to tell you you played bad. But, if you show me good play, we’re going to build on it.’”
Brentson knows what hard work looks like. It’s not necessarily about the stats themselves or the accolades or the accomplishments. All of those things, the things that often get idolized and remembered in the game, have an element of timing to them. What doesn’t need an element of timing is the work you get to put in before hand to make sure you’re ready when that timing does line up. It’s about being all you can be in the classroom and weight room, the practice field and in the way you carry yourself in your profession.
Buckner attended Clemson University. During his time there he recorded 46 tackles for loss, which was good for the fourth-highest career total in school history. But, what stood out to me when reading up on Buckner wasn’t the tackle for loss total. It was the fact that he also held the school record for most weight on a leg sled with 1,220 pounds. There are some three-year players from Clemson who certainly would have passed Buckner’s tackle for loss total if they didn’t declare early. So, you can take away his rank in the school’s record books, in another reality you so choose. But, what you can’t take away are Buckner’s results in the weight room like on the leg sled. That stuff he earned as much as you can — and he knows what it’s like to earn success.
Buckner was selected by the Steelers in the second round of the 1994 NFL Draft where he played defensive end and nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. After three years in Pittsburgh, Buckner had brief stints in Cincinnati and in San Francisco before landing on his feet in Carolina with the Panthers where he played the final five years of his career. Buckner played alongside Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins in the best defensive front in football when Carolina made it to the Super Bowl in 2005. Over the course of his 12-year career, Buckner played just about every position on the defensive line from right and left defensive end to 3-tech defensive tackle to 0-tech nose tackle. He finished his career with 303 tackles, 31 sacks, five forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and a touchdown, and in 174 career games.
After his retirement from his playing days, Buckner dipped into broadcasting with a mid-day sports radio show in Charlotte for a few years. While in Charlotte, Buckner became the head coach at Northside Christian, a local high school. Buckner kept with coaching after that and became an intern with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2010-2012. In 2013, he became the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals for five seasons under Bruce Arians, who retired after the 2017 season. Buckner, who knew Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht from their time together in Arizona during the 2013 campaign, signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to replace former defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who was fired after two seasons as the defense finished with a league-low 22 sacks.
Though the Cardinals defense, as a whole, has taken a dip downward in terms of production, hints tell us that hasn’t been due to Buckner’s ability as a defensive line coach. For starters, over the last five seasons, Buckner’s units never produced less than 35 sacks collectively. He had a Top 10 sack guy in John Abraham in 2012 (11.5), he brought life back into Dwight Freeney’s career in 2015, he orchestrated the league’s No. 1 sack defense in 2016 and coached last year’s NFL sack leader in Chandler Jones, who had 17 sacks — five off the Buccaneers’ total as a team.
But, what can speak even more to Buckner’s ability as a coach is that, not only could his defensive lines get to the quarterback, they could stop the run, too. To open up this Cover 3 I talked about defensive players not getting a lot of glory and “doing the dirty work,” if you will. It’s one thing to get your guys focused and motivated to get sacks, but it takes a special coach to get the same out of run support. In Buckner’s five years with the Cardinals, with one of the lowest defensive line payrolls in the league, for the most part, Bucker’s fronts finished all but one season as a Top 10 rushing defense, and that one outside season was a Top 15 finish.
Now, if Buckner is such a good coach, why was he available for Tampa Bay to go get? Well, it’s a combination of some things.
Let’s start with the fact that the Cardinals defense was not his defense. He was not the defensive coordinator, James Bettcher was. Bettcher was the Cardinals defensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017 — he had previously coached as the Cardinals linebackers coach since 2013. Both Bettcher and Buckner arrived in Arizona at the same time, but as time went on, it appeared they promoted the wrong guy to defensive coordinator.
Under Bettcher, the Cardinals defense went from being ranked eighth best in total points given up in 2015, 14th best in 2016 and 19th best in 2017. At one point in 2017, the Cardinals ranked 30th in third-down conversion rate, allowing offenses to keep drives alive 47.7 percent of the time. In addition to that, the Arizona defense has spent an average of 32:16 minutes per game on the field, the third-most of any team midway through the season.
So why the decline? Well, there are hints for that, too. Sure, the Cardinals, like the Bucs, didn’t necessarily have the horses to finish the race – the players weren’t what the coaches or front office thought they would be – but even the players who were there didn’t seem to love it. The last stop on linebacker Lamar Woodley’s career was in Arizona after a long career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Following his retirement, Woodley criticized Bettcher on a podcast saying how his former DC ran a defense was “dumb” and that he called defense like it was Madden. In the podcast, he stated that Bettcher didn’t listened to his players and just wanted plays run “their way.”
“They’d draw something up and on paper it looked good, but the players still have to go out there and run it,” Woodley said. “[Bettcher] didn’t really listen to his players.”
Sounds sort of like how Hayes ran things in Tampa Bay, huh? Having Gerald McCoy as the decoy or a 0-tech nose tackle in a 3-3-5, giving Robert Ayers the one-on-ones, calling more stunts and games than any team ever should – I’m not surprised either coach was out of work after approaching things like that.
But wait, there’s more.
If you’re a Bucs fan, chances are you know the name Calais Campbell — that name might even sting to hear. Campbell was one of the big-name free agents from the 2017 free agent pool that many Bucs fans wanted but their team never got. Where did Campbell go instead? Oh, just to a little ol’ place called Jacksonville where he was second in the league in sacks individually with 14.5, and was second in the league in sacks collectively (as a team) with 55.
Mid-season, Campbell went on a podcast with SportsIllutrated around the time of Thanksgiving and one of the questions they asked him is what he was thankful for.
“This Thanksgiving I am thankful for a defensive coordinator that let’s us rush four at a time, so we can go out and lead the league in sacks.”
Notice how he didn’t go after Buckner’s coaching at his previous stop, he went after Bettcher’s. The reason I can take that hint and say it with such confidence is because what Woodley said and what Campbell said goes directly against everything I’ve heard Buckner say he builds his philosophy on as a coach.
“We want great people that happen to be good 🏈 players.”
In the video above, Buckner talks so naturally about what he looks for in players. He talks about character, which is good, but he also makes sure to note that every player has to do what they do best. If you’re not allowing your players to do that, you’ll be trying to fit square pegs into circular holes.
In a different interview, Buckner had this to say about his coaching philosophy.
“What it’s done is allow these guys to let their natural God-given ability play because they can play fast, they’re not thinking,” Buckner said. “They’re not wondering, ‘What is this offense going to do to me?’ We try to preach in our D-line room, they really should call us the offensive line because we’re going to attack you and you’re going to have to defend whatever we’re going to do to you. So that’s our mindset.”
Give me that guy – every time.
Give me the guy that isn’t so stubborn as to think his way is the only way, or to think that he’s reached a point as a coach to where he can’t be taught or enlightened or changed for the better himself. If you ask me, that was what was holding the Buccaneers defense back the most from 2017. It wasn’t talent; these are good players. Maybe not the best guys at each position, but what team has everything they want? You can rarely do that with the salary cap.
Instead, you have to get the most out of your guys. You have to pick and acquire talent and you have to have the coaches who know who to make the most out of it. Call a spade a spade; Dirk Koetter didn’t do that; Mike Smith didn’t do that; Hayes didn’t do that.
I’ve gone in-depth criticizing the Bucs use of their safeties.
I’ve gone in-depth criticizing the Bucs use of their cornerbacks.
I’ve gone in-depth criticizing the Bucs play calling and play designs.
Buckner has a chance to be different.
I like this hire; I like it a lot. In the game of football, especially on defense, you can’t do things alone. You have to have different perspectives and you have to be able to see and get the most out of the guys around you. Buckner has done that for the last five years in Arizona. He might be the Bucs’ best coaching hire in a long time.
The two quotes I used to begin this article were from Buckner as he addressed his Cardinals unit after their Week 1 loss to the St. Louis Rams in 2013, his first year as a D-Line coach. The year prior they were ranked 28th in the NFL in run defense.
After that loss and that speech, they went on to be the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL.
Listen to your players, and they’ll listen to you.