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(s) of the Week
The defensive stats before this week weren’t pretty for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The collective group, led by second-year defensive coordinator Mike Smith, was suppose to take the next step this season, but eight games in and the step they had taken was closer to backwards than it was moving forward.
Prior to their game against the Jets, the Bucs ranked in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed, and therefore yards per game. They were one of the bottom five teams when defending the pass, and again in the bottom half of teams in terms of stopping the run. Throw on the icing of the cake that Tampa Bay was dead last in the NFL in sacks and you have yourself a dessert that wasn’t so sweet.
To be fair, there have been some road blocks in the progress of this defense due to injury. The team’s starting cornerback, Brent Grimes, has missed two games due to a shoulder injury. Starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander missed six weeks with a hamstring injury, and their starting weakside linebacker Lavonte David missed two games with a sprained ankle. Safeties Keith Tandy and T.J. Ward have been in and out of the lineup as well. Throw in the fact that, at varying times, the team is now down defensive ends Noah Spence and Will Gholston, and it’s easy to chalk some of the statistical woes to inconsistencies with the line up week-to-week.
But, that would be the easy things to do – the film showed a different story. It’s true that the Buccaneers have not had all of their best players available for most of the season, at least not all at once. That’s life in the NFL. However, beyond that, they have not been put in the best positions to win football games, and that is the main culprit of why I think they have – and still do – rank so low in most defensive categories around the league.
The problems can go all the way back to the offseason. When this team signed defensive tackle Chris Baker, heck, even when it drafted Spence, one wondered if this team was transitioning to a 3-4 defense. We were told that the Bucs weren’t necessarily switching their base to a 3-4, but they did want to stay as versatile as possible. That’s nice, in theory, but instead of being versatile, they became void of an identity. All of a sudden you had 4-3 linebackers playing as pass rushers, you had All-Pro three-tech defensive tackle Gerald McCoy playing alone as a nose tackle and being double-teamed (isn’t he the guy Smith is trying to get isolated in a one-on-one?) and you had a rotating door of four safeties all playing in bland positions that neither threatened the quarterback nor helped their corners.
That’s what’s been unfolding as the year has gone on; more confusion than diversion. However, on Sunday, for really the first time this season, I saw a defense be confident and have an identity while still staying multiple.
Those are the game snaps and percentage for the each player from Sunday’s game against the Jets.
Right off the bat I notice a couple of things. The first is that rookie safety Justin Evans played every single defensive snap once again. This is how it should be. He should be playing as the full time free safety. No other safety on the team allows Tampa Bay to play Cover 3 or Cover 1 with the right speed and athleticism in the secondary, and before this, the Bucs were forced to primarily play Cover 2 with zone coverage or Quarters (Cover 4). Teams knew it and picked the defense apart.
The second thing I noticed is that nickel cornerback Vernon Hargreaves’ percentage is all the way down at 41 percent. That’s less than half the game, but part of that was due to the hamstring injury he suffered. Javien Elliott did log 29 percent of snaps as well, which put nickel formations at 70 percent. This is Hargreaves’ role and should continue to be. He’s clearly better as a press, nickel corner.
The last thing I want to point out might be the most important, and something we’re going to dive deeper into on the next page and that is Alexander and David played 100 percent of the defensive snap but Kendell Beckwith played 75 percent of the snaps, too. If you do the math, with traditional 4-3 or nickel formations that doesn’t add up. That’s because the Bucs aren’t afraid to play the 3-3-5 defense we first saw in the Buffalo game – only now they’re playing it much more effectively.
So, knowing that the Bucs wanted to keep three linebackers in and yet still play with five defensive backs, what changed this week compared to, say, the week in Buffalo?
I think the key lies in the third down efficiency and holding the Jets to just a 20 percent conversion rate. We’ll break this down more on the next page, but the reason the Bucs were able to hold the Jets to such a low number (something they’ve really struggled with in the first eight games) is because they were able to keep more linebackers on the field and blitz them, they were able to play single-high coverage with Evans and played closer to the line of scrimmage with their cornerbacks. All of those factors were ingredients to a recipe that allowed them to be more aggressive on defense.
Third down efficiency was a big reason why the Bucs were able to get a win last week, even with a stale offense. Click to the next page to see breakdowns of just how the defense was able to switch it up and if it can be sustained.