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.

Bucs LB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs LB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

24 COMMENTS

  1. great insight as always trevor. really interesting stuff on beckwith and the overall make up of the defense . and to your point of the bucs should begin to draft like a 3-4 team i believe so. it would be a waste to have 3 super talented linebackers and not try to have them on the field as much as possible. that to go along with the fact that the bucs d line isn’t great to begin with and they have players who can line up in a 3/4 on the defensive line, i say they do it. i think they should give guys like bond and glanton looks too as 3-4 pass rushing linebackers i know bond especially could be good in that role

    • I’ve been pretty hesitant about the 3-4 transition because of what it might do to McCoy, but he’s proving he can still be dominant anywhere, as long as they space things correctly. I also like the idea of Spence being a linebacker more than I do him being a defensive end. I can envision him in a rotation with the three other linebackers. Would be pretty fast.

  2. Trevor; that’s a lot of questions, but I’ll try to respond to some of them. For the rest of the season I am focusing on the Defense as it transitions more to a 3-4 Defense. I understand it could go to a 3-3-5 also, either way is fine with me as long as there is more pressure in getting to the QB quickly. Right now I am leaning in keeping all the Coaches and GM for one more season to see if they can work out the kinks. I wasn’t at this position before this last game, but I can see where the Defense is going. Now this based on if Defense keeps it under 20 points this last half of the season. Spence unfortunately is a big question mark because I don’t know if his shoulder can hold up especially in the LB arena; it doesn’t cost them much to keep him for another year and see if he pans out. Definitely need a pass rusher, but it won’t surprise me if a offensive left tackle is drafted first. Winston deserves to have someone to protect him from the blindside and also being able for that Tackle to get to the outside and run block. D. Smith should move OG where i believe he will do good.
    Yes it is worth it if Gerald has to set up differently; one thing I know, he will still be effective as he doesn’t give up. We have 2-3 more years with Gerald at most if he can continue to be in a rotational mode. I’m disappointed in Baker because he came in here out of shape and not walking the walk and Licht not covering himself enough if J. Smith or Spence didn’t work out by drafting a DE in the middle rounds who had potential knowing it would be a gamble. trevor I really enjoy these Articles. Where did Pewter Report find you?

  3. It should not have taken this long for Coach Smith to finally figure out how to use the players he has. What the heck did he do throughout the offseason, OTAs, training camp, and pre-season games?

    Even if Coach Smith can answer that question reasonably (which I doubt), we’re still just talking about the results in one game against a mediocre opponent.

    By the time we get through the rest of our schedule against a lot of very good teams, particularly within our own division, we’re going to know if this was just a one-off performance against a bad team, or if the defense has really gotten sustainably better, albeit too late to do much good this season.

    • Naplefan, I agree. Could be Smith may have been taken back as to how fast Beckwith was ready to go and perform. I think they were set for Bond to be in a 4-3 and Beckwith blew past him and they weren’t believing what they were seeing that the 3-4 or 3-3-5 coupld happen so quickly. Just my opinion.

  4. McCoy’s get off should allow him to have success as a 3-4 end. Whether he’s happy about that or not who cares. We need to prepare for the day he’s gone anyway, he’s not getting any younger. A.Donald isn’t hampered when they moved to a 3-4, good players can, and should adjust. Remember what Mr. Spock had to say, “the needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few”.

    • Agree Surfer. I think GMC is better suited to be a 3-4 DE than Donald. If he embraces it, it could extend his career. I believe he could be more effective in that role.

      Evans is the player that is surprising me. I saw so many flaws in his film, for him to be making this positive of a contribution is very encouraging. I want him to start picking off a pass every fourth game or so. He’s been coming closer. This week he gets number 2 on the season.

      As far as Beckwith, I’ve been saying for a while, Kwon might be the third best linebacker on this team. I need to really evaluate before I really settle on that as I know I am skewed by the expectations from Beck and Kwon, but Beck is at least closing that gap, incredibly fast.

  5. You go with the setup that puts the most players in the best place to succeed. It’s not like GMC will suddenly NOT be an elite player on the line if he’s moved, and it seems to light a fire in the rest of the D. Why not?

    Spence looks more like a 3-4 backer, Beck, LVD and Kwon could hit the field that way and in a way we could mask our deficiencies at DE atm by doing so. Makes sense to me.

    • I agree. I think McCoy and Spence would be much better in 3-4 roles than we anticipated, but I will say that we need to see this have consistent success over the next few games before we jump to definitive answers. If it works, be all in for it.

      • Trevor nice article!
        The only problem IMO is for the last 2 years it has taken 8-9 games for the Defense to come together I am not saying the Bucs Defense was the cause for all the losses, turnovers and the kicking game contributed also. I agree Koetter should be given at least 1 more year. Let’s see if a new Offensive coordinator that he trusts to call play’s can help.Just my opinion

  6. I’m really not concerned how a change in defensive scenes might affect McCoy’s playing ability or mood.
    The guy has maybe 2 more years left in his game so if the Bucs can move McCoy like The Pats do with their fading stars and god forbid find someone like Lovie Smith who will cough up a No. 1 pick , I say give McCoy a home version of the Buccaneer board game.

  7. Very insightful article… Now we are getting somewhere.
    This coaching staff has taken WAY to long to figure out what works “best”. They are too set in their stubborn ways and take too long to make adjustments. I yelled at the top of my lungs last year when they had Vernon playing 10 yards ( or more!) off Julio for the whole freaking game on TNF… No adjustments!
    Let the D coagulate for the rest of the season and hand the reigns to somebody else who can adjust quicker. They are young… they will get better… and why wouldn’t we be able to find a stud, like Beckwith, for any position again in the 4th… Who’s coming out of LSU this year??? Seriously I took the leading tackler last years word for it… and Kendall’s college tape clearly shows he was ready for the NFL. They need to go into the draft as though this is Gerald’s last year and treat the LB’s as the centerpiece of the D… which it clearly is at this point… just a few more “right” moves and we’re golden.

  8. Love these articles Trevor! I’m finding it difficult to limit my answers to only a few of your questions as they’re all very thought provoking but I’ll start with what I believe to be the most crucial.

    First, Mike Smith. Who is this guy? Who waits half a season to make adjustments? Or better yet how can a coach with his level of experience field a scheme with so many elementary and obvious holes in it to start with? Is this his defensive identity or was that? He seems to be finding his footing now but didn’t that happen last year? If he’ll commit to sticking this route I can get on board.

    Have to admit, I was a huge hater of Justin Evans and the use of a second round pick for him. I’m still not sold on his instincts but I do love what his athleticism brings. The Seattle Single High is a defense, like you pointed out earlier in the year, that takes a specific skill set of players to pull off. When that all comes together there’s no disputing the results and it looks as though (IMO) that’s where we’re heading or should head. Evans high, Ward in the box, press cover and speed in the linebackers. Before now I thought this to be out of our network but with Evans emergence and the addition of Ward i believe we have the tools. I’m sure drafting a longer CB and a big solidly built DE in the first and second rounds next April wouldn’t upset anyone around here.

    This defense could be special with the right direction. Too much talent to waste.

    Go Bucs!

  9. I am not a fan of 3-4 or 3-3-5. The 3-3-5 seems like a variation of Landry’s legendary defense. It works as a gimmick like the wildcat but teams will eventually counter it be spreading the field and exposing that third LB.

    So you need to build a defense either through a 3-4 base or 4-3 base long term.

    • as a bucs fan, my knowledge leans heavily towards 4-3 alignments, so pardon my possible ignorance but if the risk is that the LB will get exploited in coverage by a spread formation, how does adding a 4th LB to the alignment (at the expense of a DB) mitigate that? I would imagine this personell grouping to be more exploitable by a road grading OL and a power running attack that needs bigger bodies to defend

  10. i’m no expert, but wade phillips putting aaron donald into a 3-4 hasn’t neutered that unit so there’s a way to make it happen with mccoy. alternatively – and this is my first trip on the “trade mccoy” express – you can flip mccoy for more draft assets and continue to build around your stud LBs (3 certified studs showing effectiveness behind a 3 man line, and a chance that it’s Noah Spence’s cup of tea also) with a beefier D line and at least one solid cover corner. Gholston is build like a 3-4 end and other than GMC i don’t think any of our DTs might qualify as “undersized”, so the cupboard is far from bare in that alignment