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
Table of Contents
We all think participation trophies are stupid, right?
I grew up playing sports. If you’re reading this column, chances are you grew up playing sports, too, or were at least around them, in some way. I hated getting second place trophies – haaaaated it. And I don’t mean that as a cliche. Trophies that didn’t hold a “you’re better than this person” title to it didn’t mean much to me.
Today we live in a world where the phrase “If you ain’t first you’re last” doesn’t always apply – jeez, Trev, two weeks in a row with a Talladega Nights reference? There are ribbons and trophies – hell, even rings and titles given out to college players for things that taint the word “champion.” I graduated from the University of Florida, so I follow the Gators football team pretty closely. When they won the SEC East in back-to-back season in 2015 and 2016, they gave their players rings for it, even though they got destroyed by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game(s), not even the National Championship Game. That stuff is so gross to me. I get that it’s a recruiting ploy and that the players worked hard. Blah, blah, blah. They weren’t champions. You know and I know it.
Bucs DE Will Gholston – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
So what does it take to build a championship defense? And I’m talking about a team that actually wins a championship, not one that just gets close to one. In the NFL, the common denominator for the last 10 years has been sacks. No team in the last decade has won a Super Bowl and not finished in the top half of the NFL in sacks. In fact, if you take out teams that have Tom Brady as their quarterback, that stat almost tells you that being in the Top 10 is necessary. You can give up yards, you can be sketchy on third down, you can lose the time of possession; all of those elements exist in certain champions of old. You know what doesn’t? A lack of sack production.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished dead last in the NFL for sacks in 2017. For reference on how bad they were, the Jacksonville Jaguars had four players – FOUR – who finished with more sacks by themselves than the Bucs entire defensive end group had combined. On top of all that, four of the Buccaneers’ top 10 contracts in terms of a per-year salary are invested in the defensive line, and they still couldn’t get it done.
Yes, losing defensive end Noah Spence hurt them, and yes, defensive end Jacquies Smith not returning to form didn’t help them. But, defensive tackle Chris Baker being a giant letdown in his first year and the team falsely convincing themselves that aging defensive end Robert Ayers and run-stopping end William Gholston were going to do something in that department is all on them – the front office and the coaching staff. Baker, Gholston and Ayers are three of the four players who currently command top 10 contracts on the team, and that’s a big problem for what they got out of them in 2017.
So where do things go from here? That’s the question. Wherever the hype came from, the fans, the media, the team or likely a combination of it all, it was all smoke and mirrors from the reality that unfolded. This team added high talent to luxury positions last offseason, thinking they had the main components of football settled.
Now it has to change, and it has to change fast. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is playing at a high level, but for how much longer?
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson was signed to a three-year deal, and his presence could be a big deal, but only while he’s still in Tampa Bay. Brent Grimes has already toyed with retirement, and it feels like Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are at their peaks; the Bucs have to capitalize. In reality, it feels like this core group of Buccaneers has about three years to hit it big.
If not, things will start to look a lot different.
So what are the option here?
First let’s look at this whole operation from base level.
3-4 vs. 4-3
During the summer, we went very in-depth into what makes up a 4-3 defense and what makes up a 3-4 defense, knowing that Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith was going to stay multiple in the things he did. To start the season most of what the Buccaneers did was from the 4-3 base formation. McCoy was the key to the front seven at the 3-technique defensive tackle position, Baker came in a (tried to) play the 0 or 1-tech nose tackle, Spence played as the wide edge player on passing downs and Ayers and Gholston played 5-tech defensive ends on running down.
This was thought to be ideal, but it didn’t exactly work out that way.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Baker at the nose tackle was bad all year. He was a good pass rusher in his final year in Washington from an interior defensive line position, but in 2017 he was getting blown off the ball left and right as a Buccaneer when it came to run stopping. The team also tried to get too cute with McCoy. Knowing that McCoy was going to get doubled, they tried to steer into that and use him as a decoy to get Ayers and Gholston one-on-ones, instead of running plays to alleviate the attention on McCoy. All of that backfired in a bad way.
As the season went on and the Bucs realized what they were doing in the front seven wasn’t working, we began to see more 3-4-type fronts – which included the 3-3-5 defense in nickel situations we saw them go to many times in the latter half of the season. Initially, they tried to play McCoy at the 0-tech of a 3-4 defense, but if you know anything about that formation, you know that the 0-tech is often the one who gets swallowed up and takes on multiple blocks, again steering McCoy into getting double teamed instead of focusing on getting him one-on-ones. I think this was due, in part, because they knew Baker was getting eaten up inside, but even that was trying to fix a negative with a negative. As the year went on, though, they started to use McCoy more as a 3-4 defensive end and had Clinton McDonald more in the mix as well – both of these were good things.
Starting to revitalize the Bucs’ pass rush will start with whatever formation they choose to deploy. If they chose to go back to the 4-3, fine, they just have to make sure they’re working their pass rush to get McCoy open looks – not Ayers. Next, if Baker is even in Tampa Bay next year, it has to be behind McDonald, who is a free agent and deserves to be re-signed, in the rotation. Baker can’t do the dirty work, and whatever formation you use, if you don’t have at least one dirty work defensive lineman, you’re going to fail. Finally, the edge pressure has to be better, and honestly, I haven’t been that impressed with Spence when he’s had his hand in the ground.
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
That brings me to the change I’m hoping happens. This is me officially saying I want this Buccaneers defense to be a 3-4 base defense. McCoy and McDonald can play the weakside three-technique defensive end spot and still be disruptive, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu can play the nose tackle with Gholston as the strongside five-technique defensive end as a dirty work player, and most importantly, Spence and linebacker Kendell Beckwith can rush from stand-up positions as outside linebackers. This, to me, gets the most out of Spence, and if this pass rush is going to be salvaged at all, Spence has to be maximized. McCoy is good enough to win as a 3-4 defensive end as Cameron Heyward does in Pittsburgh and Aaron Donald does in Los Angeles. Plus, in a 3-4, they can get away with Gholston being just a run stuffer; in a 4-3, they can’t; they have to ask him to do something he just isn’t good at (rushing the edge).
David and Alexander are good enough to play in the middle as the linebackers, and safety Justin Evans has shown he can play that Cover 3, single-high style that you need for a true aggressive 3-4 defense.
That’s what it ultimately comes down to, for me – aggression. This Buccaneers defense was soft. It was soft last year, it was soft in 2016 and it’s been soft since 2007.
Shock the system, change it up and play like you want to win, not like you just want to get close.
That starts on the defensive side of the ball, and it starts up front, and there’s a player in this 2018 NFL Draft class who, if they bring in to a 3-4 defense, can make McCoy, McDonald and the rest of the front seven look at lot more playoff ready in a hurry.
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