Sikkema’s Stat of the Week

Last year, Tampa Bay’s pass defense sucked.

I like writing in my own columns as it allows me to be more direct and right to the point without sugarcoating things.

In 2017, Tampa Bay was dead last in the NFL with 260 passing yards allowed per game. The Bucs were actually in the middle of the pack with just 22 passing touchdowns given up per game, and also right around the league average with 13 interceptions, as a whole. But, their first down conversion percentage was fourth worst in the league and their completion percentage was also fourth worst in the league.

Tampa Bay’s total points allowed was tied for ninth worst, which, if you really look at it, two less touchdowns or a handful less field goals given up on the season would’ve meant the Bucs were right around the league average. And if that happened the Bucs might have had an extra win or two, as well. But, you know what, that didn’t happen.

You know why? Because you can’t play “bend but don’t break” forever. You can’t keep giving up the yards and not expect to give up too many points to be competitive. It’s a coward’s way to play defense, and you know what else? That’s not the way playoff teams play defense. Usually the teams with the more aggressive defenses that have more sacks and force more turnovers are in the playoffs.

Now, I get it. When a team has the worst pass rush unit in the NFL, it’s not logical to ask your secondary unit to play close coverage long enough to get to the quarterback. But, guess what? In 2016, when the team was ninth in the NFL in sacks with 38, it still gave up 250 passing yards per game. That’s only 10 yards per game better from when it was dead last in 2017, so even though their ranking was much better than the previous year, the numerical production wasn’t all that different.

Why? Mike Smith’s philosophy.

Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Photo courtesy of the Buccaneers

If you’ve followed my work for the better part of the last year you know I haven’t really held back on how Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator uses his cornerbacks. The Bucs play a lot of off coverage which sometimes involves man-to-man assignments but more often then not is some variation of a vertical zone drop, which could be their quarters (Cover 4) coverage or sometimes Cover 3.

What the Bucs typically do is have their cornerbacks line up four to six yards off the line of scrimmage (by design, although Vernon Hargreaves III chose to be much further than that during his struggles) and rather than be physical with receivers. This allows them to have the space to read and react to the quarterback by keeping everything in front of them. This is very much a “pick your battles” style of secondary coverage that allows for catches to be given up and yards to be yielded, by design, in hopes that a turnover will come eventually either by preparation and recognition before the game or an understanding of tendencies during the game – likely a combination of both.

At times, it can result in a Brent Grimes pick-six like he had against Carolina’s Cam Newton in Week 17 of 2016. But, more often than not, it feels more like Julio Jones’ Week 12 game last year against the Buccaneers where he recorded 253 yards and two touchdowns. Usually if you give good receivers space in the NFL, you’re betting that the clock hits zero before you lose. That’s what you’re doing, if you ask me; you’re game-planning for fortune and banking on luck.

But, you don’t have to take it from me. Read what Matt Harmon of NFL.com had to say about the Bucs’ secondary unit in 2017.

“The Buccaneers’ pass defense has regressed the past three seasons, falling from 16th to 22nd before dropping to dead last in 2018. It’s a unit crying for a wave of new talent. Their top cornerback over the last two seasons was Brent Grimes, who surprisingly played extremely well for them despite washing out in Miami. The Bucs should still stock the cupboard with talented young options. Despite being a first-round selection just two years ago, Vernon Hargreaves has been a massive weak link to this point in his career. He played nine games last year, and quarterbacks registered a 101.2 passer rating when throwing in his direction.”

It hasn’t been getting better for the Buccaneers, but the timing has also been odd. The Bucs’ 2016 draft looks bad; no way around it. We’ve sort of heard that there may have been too many voices involved when it came to the selecting of prospects in 2016, but, at this point, defensive end Noah Spence might be the only one who can salvage that class. The Bucs drafted Hargreaves in the first round that year and his timetable has been fair but frustrating. They selected him due to his ability to fit in to the system they run, but that decision in and of itself was flawed.

I’ll get more into that in a bit, but here’s what Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project, conducted by Ian Wharton, had to say about the Bucs’ three corners in 2017.

Ryan Smith (Ranked 75th)

“There may not have been a more overwhelmed corner to earn more than 500 snaps than Smith. The 2016 fourth-round pick appeared to be guessing at routes with little consideration for how much help he had. His struggles with staying in position to challenge at the catch point were a major issue, and offenses routinely targeted his side of the field. He was unfit to be the third boundary corner in 2017.”

Vernon Hargreaves (Ranked 61st)

“The Buccaneers gambled on a pair of 5-foot-10, quick, off-ball cornerbacks by acquiring Brent Grimes and Hargreaves in 2016, and they hit on Grimes but missed on Hargreaves. The Florida product sees the game slowly and doesn’t fully trust his athleticism, often giving receivers too much cushion as he’s unable to recover from a technical misstep. Tampa Bay eventually moved him into the slot before he missed the last five games of the season with a hamstring injury, and he looked more at home in that role.”

Brent Grimes (Ranked 30th)

“Brent Grimes, now 34, has maintained a high level of play well past his physical peak. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played to his strength, which is off-man and a mix of vertical zone drops, so he can read and react to the ball. He’s still quick to break on underneath routes and athletic enough to challenge jump balls, but his recovery speed is all but gone. He needs help over the top to prevent big plays, and his run defense has always been shaky.”

Finally! The message is being proclaimed from a source other than my two index fingers that I use to type (yes, I only use two fingers to type).

Grimes is a really good cornerback, and honestly, he’s been underrated an underappreciated for most of his career, which has been exceptional, especially for a player his size. But, I don’t know if this is via push-back from Grimes himself or if it’s just a call made by Smith looking at who his best cornerback is, but catering to Grimes’ best style of play is actually crippling the rest of this secondary.

Bucs CB Brent Grimes – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs CB Brent Grimes – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

When you play off, vertical zone coverage, what you need the most is wisdom at the cornerback position. You need hours and hours complied into years of watching film and you need game-time trials and successes (plus the given athleticism). That’s the only way you can get the anticipation and awareness to make an impact as a off coverage cornerback. If you don’t have that foundation, you’re just a yielded catch waiting to happen, and in 2016 and 2017, that’s what Hargreaves was and that’s what Ryan Smith was last year.

When Hargreaves was pushed into the slot and in the later half of the season where Mike Smith was just try to do anything he could to cover guys, both Hargreaves and Ryan Smith were given some snaps playing close to the line of scrimmage and both fared better, or at least looked more comfortable. Now, close coverage also means you have to deal with being physical and you also are more susceptible to jump balls. Not that Grimes can’t defend those, but at his size and height it’s obviously more difficult.

This is why such an off coverage defense isn’t played much in the NFL at the playoff level because playoff teams don’t have cornerbacks exclusively that small, in size or in height. In the NFL1000 project, eight of the top 10 cornerbacks on the list were 6-feet tall or higher and most weighed over 200 pounds, too. Why? Because you can become a total package at cornerback when that’s your starting point.

Read an excerpt from that project about one of their top cornerbacks who isn’t over 6-foot, L.A. Chargers defensive back Casey Hayward.

“Hayward doesn’t carry side advantages, and he doesn’t have exceptional straight-line speed, but he has a tremendous understanding of the routes his receivers are running, a terrific backpedal which puts him in the right place at the right time, and a calculated yet aggressive approach to the ball when it’s in his area. You won’t see many 5-foot-10 cornerbacks excelling on the outside; Hayward is the exception because he understands his position so completely.”

You know why we’re so surprised that Hayward is able to do the things he does? Because it’s so difficult to do; you read the analysis, it’s nearly a perfect understanding. Most of the time when you draft a cornerback who isn’t of the appropriate length, you’re already starting behind the eight ball. Before they even take an NFL snap, you’re already hoping that they can beat the percentages and the norms that come against them, instead of stacking the deck in your favor the other way around with bigger corners.

It’s not that the Bucs don’t have big, tall cornerback who allow them the freedom to play close coverage, it’s that they never have. It’s the fact that outside of drafting 6-foot-2 Johnthan Banks (who wasn’t good), this team has barely even tried to switch up its defensive philosophy since the late 2000s when it had 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib.

That is until now.

Click to the next page to read about a player who became a Buccaneer on draft weekend that might change how Tampa Bay uses its cornerbacks – in all the right ways.

52 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. Always learn few new things in the Cover 3’s. I think you have to mix it up in NFL and play both styles at times. The Bucs bigger issue to me was they weren’t mixing it ever. Why can’t Grimes play little off and others press a bit more? Will that just screw up the whole secondary and make zones too complicated? I think pass rush will be lot better this year which should help our secondary immensely. Who is the secondary/CB coach now?

    • You can mix. That does happen, but you just have to adjust where your safeties are aligned/their assignments if it’s zone coverage. Can be a form of “cloud” coverage in a Cover 3 system where one CB (Grimes) & both safeties take deep zones & other CB (Davis) up close w/press.

  2. Trevor,

    I love everything about what Jason Licht has done this off-season. He took care of the receiving corps last off-season and he took care of the defensive line and secondary this off-season. I think the only thing I was hoping for was a late round edge rusher like Josh Sweat instead of the Jordan Whitehead pick. But even Jordan Whitehead seems like a really tough player and I think that’s the mentality of every defensive player taken in the draft and in free agency. Whitehead looks like he’s trying to knock people out of the game against Virginia Tech on Youtube. It’s impressive.

    Beau Allen
    Vinny Curry
    JPP
    Ryan Jensen
    Vita Vea
    Carlton Davis
    MJ Stewart
    Jordan Whitehead
    Jack Cichy

    All of these guys have a tough, open up a can of whoop ass mentality. I think Licht prioritized that and I can’t imagine our defense being worse than it was last year against both the run and the pass. If we were in any other division I’d say that we would definitely be a playoff team.

    I honestly have no idea what we will do with our defensive scheme this year. I definitely don’t think we’re going to a 3-4 anymore and I’m happy about that. I do think that you may start to see some more press coverage next year, but a lot of that will be dependent on how these rookies and Hargreaves look in training camp and if Justin Evans is looking like he can be trusted as a deep free safety.

  3. You’re not going to completely fix the defense in one season, especially with rookies that still have flaws that need to be coached out. I think addressing the defensive line is going to help quite a bit to relieve some of the pressure off the back end, but in the end I think our backfield is still going to be suspect no matter how we play.

    I would still like to see us pick up one of the better safeties still on the FA market to at least get some more solid play in the middle of the defensive backfield, but I really do like the pick of Davis. I’m just hoping we have the coaching talent to actually fix some of the flaws he shows.

    I think Hargreaves is going to bust and I think MJ Stewart is the nickle replacement. Maybe we have enough to get by with an improved pass rush, but I’m not seeing enough talent to think the defense is fixed.

    Hope you do a Cover 3 next week on MJ Stewart and how he might fit into the backfield.

  4. Agree Fredster, you can have different corners in both schemes on the same play. That said, our safeties are not that good. It’s about time someone from PR stated the obvious, WE NEED TALLER CORNERS! I know PR plays both sides here in that it states what is the philosophy of the Buc organization but you guys at times do provide your opinions. This coaching staff and GM, have been awful in addressing this. It has been blatantly obvious to almost all the posters on here for several years now. I hope the organization reads your article Trevor it really states the obvious about the CB position in today’s NFL. Great job and always look forward to your cover 3.

  5. Great article Trevor!

    I believe we actually need to mix the scheme up and was under the assumption Smith was going to do so last year, he mentioned (hinted) that we were going that way last year in training camp. After the injuries we had last season I feel as though Smith had one hand tied behind his back with the hopes of running that mix of defense. We have more pieces this year to run a 3 4 4 3 mix because Allen, Unrein, Curry, Stevie T and Vita have all played in a 3 4 so why not? I honestly think our defense would be deadly to face if we could implement this into our scheme. Could you imagine us in a 4 3 defense for most of a game and then Brees, Ryan or Cam comes out of the huddle to a 3 4?! Talk about frustrating for an opposing QB!

    • Perhaps. Last year’s struggles weren’t solely on the coaching staff. The roster was just not good. But, there were things they could have done better. Blame all around. Not sure where they go this time around. It’s a clean slate with a much more talented group of guys to work with. They can and should get creative in how to get the most out of everyone.

      • I think the main problem with last season was that the entire pass rush was extremely dependent on Noah Spence. Without him we didn’t have any edge rush and teams knew that if they stopped McCoy then no one else was getting to the QB. Looking back at 2016 when Noah really started to get better as the season went on was when the defense looked great.

        Basically what I’m saying is that we were are an above average defense if we get good pressure on the QB from the edge. I think we saw that for a time during 2016 and I think we saw how awful we were in 2017 without it. The good news is that Noah will be back, but also that we won’t have to depend on just him this season.

        This is going to be a top 10 defense.

  6. Solid Cover 3 Trevor. I like the Davis pick. I’m very disappointed that Licht didn’t select Derwin James and Isaiah Oliver to go along with Davis. Those 3 would have been a massive upgrade to the secondary. Oliver was still available, when Licht took MJ Stewart.

    We needed some length, some CBs 6’0″ and taller and Licht takes another 5’10”. 5 CB in Stewart.

    We could have had 6’1″ Davis and 6’1″ Oliver.

  7. Sadly, I don’t think schematically our defense will change until Smith is gone..(and hopefully replaced with Buckner) But I do love the toughness Licht has added to this football team!
    Maybe our best hope for the defense will be for the offense to finally get some early leads in games and allow our new d-line to attack the quarterback.

  8. I honestly didn’t expect the draft to turn out this way. The obvious picks ranged from Nelson to James at 7 or if a trade down to 12, James at 12. All of a sudden we had 2 new corners in the 2nd round both of which were picked when higher rated CB’s were still on the board, then Whitehead at safety. So I guess we are going to have to wait till training camp to see who starts, will it be rotational, and what scheme best fits the battalion of DB’s we have to work with. Other than Grimes, all bets are off.

  9. Very good analysis.

    I like Grimes in press man, but not to get pushed around by someone the size of Julio Jones on every play. This pick gives you match up options. And, everyone always talk about how great teams like the Patriots win with match ups. Davis is an important addition to the arsenal.

    Defenses often win when they disguise what they are doing. What this group may do is allow more effective disguises. If you trust your DBs in pressman and off man, after the pre-snap reads, in anticipation of the snap, DBs all over the field can drop off of the line or come up to the line and confuse the quarterback reads. If the QB is looking the wrong way and fails to spot a shift, he may make a snap throw to a wide receiver expecting the DB to be seven to ten yards off the line only to have the DB there when the ball gets there. I noticed Whitehead show run support and shift to coverage, and vice versa, so more disguise. And, I saw all these guys blitz.

    So, as to your question, “Do they stick with their style?” I think they should mix it up so that no one can anticipate a style. And, as to these picks, I think they have the versatility to really help with that. On many plays, a lot may depend on Evans as a single high safety. If you know Grimes is going to press Julio on a play, you know where Evans needs to rotate to on that play.

    But, we do not have four shut-down man islands, here. So, it all depends on the DL, LBs and DBs getting pressure on the QB. That is another part of the match up and the disguise versatility I like about this group. These new DBs can all blitz, and the new LB Cichy looked like a very good blitzer.

  10. Lets just say I don’t trust Mike Smith. It took him a season and a half to realize that he had to play press with Hargreaves. He should not left it up to Hargreaves to decide how far back to play. Smith should have been fired along with Koetter in the offseason.

  11. Trevor,

    Great cover 3 this week. I liked the Carlton Davis pick right from the start. Like you said he is a tall physical CB that we have not had in sometime here. Once I listened to his conference call on the Bucs official website I was like “Oh Shit” this is only going to make our defense better. With that being said if you play a cover 3 cloud and Davis is in press coverage our improved pass rush will only make the ball thrown to him that much harder. I do not anticipate any QB including the Case Keenums to have all day to throw. We heard it a bunch last year that pass rush and coverage work hand in hand. So a better pass rush will force a QB to either be sacked or make mistakes which results in Interceptions or under throwing a ball because he can not step up in the pocket to make the throw. I think with the DL and Buckner this group can be a scary group. With that being said I will not believe anyone on that defense this year that tells me they are the best in the league like the past two years I will believe when I see it. The ball is in Mike Smith’s court now Jason has given him more than enough talent to be a much improved defense this year.

    -Chris

  12. THIS IS THE BEST STORY WRITTEN ON THIS SITE THIS YEAR SO FAR!!! I would honestly pay one noble fan in the Tampa bay area to print out enough copies of this article to cover the entire square footage of One Buc Place, Coach Koetter’s house and Mike Smith’s house. Coupled with a message of ” If you play zone or verticals coverage more than 40% of the time, you’re an asshole who doesn’t know/want to win football games.” Because the first sentence in this article could have had a couple of expletive adjectives or nouns added into it and it’s the most accurate statement made by any human in the planet. This defense from top to bottom was an absolute fucking disgrace and embarrassment to the proud defensive history of this franchise. I’m really getting sick and tired of spineless defense. Trevor you are my spirit animal…

  13. I like the draft a lot An I think our secondary will be a lot better just because we should beable to get a lot more pressure with our DLine I’m really hoping that VH3 can turn it around this year his rookie year he wasn’t that bad but we had a better pass rush last year not so good his play slipped I hope they let our corners play more press man I think we should start to see this defense turn the corner GoBUCS

  14. Davis looks like he could be the real deal. I like the pick and was glad we went back to back CB, the first pick being Stewart threw me off. I wanted CB Jackson instead of an RB, hopefully Rojo is what we have been waiting for.

    Trevor, what were your Infinity War thoughts? Since you put that line in at the top.

    • I thought it was absolutely incredible. I don’t want to give away anything for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but some of the lines in the movie hit you so hard to the core of everything you’ve watched from the Marvel Universe over the last 10 years. It was brilliantly done.

  15. Another well written, informative article Trev! Like I’ve said before, I don’t follow college ball so most of what I know is from right here at PR. This cover 3 gives an in depth description of our new CB and from what I’ve read so far, I’m very happy with this pick.

    In fact, I’m very happy with this entire off season. The only topper I can see is if we sign a vet safety FA. Not sure what our cap situation looks like after all our other moves so it may not be possible. If we have the space though, we should be able to pick one up for cheap with the safety market the way it is.

    I look forward to seeing our new pieces in action in the preseason along with our new UDFAs. Looking forward to 2018s Cam Brate!

  16. Trev, not only did our corners struggle in coverage with the exception of Grimes, all three are really bad stopping the run. Grimes at 35, and a hundred and nothing pounds, is not a willing tackler anymore, and I don’t blame him. V.H. isn’t someone who will bust someone in the chops either, and neither is Smith. In comes the bigger Stewart, and Davis bigger stronger corners who will bust you in the mouth! Licht made our D line tougher, but when you face the backs we’re going to face this year, Barkley included, you better have corners who can make a stop because those backs are going to make it past the line of scrimmage. Same with the selection at safety, Conte is a pretty weak strong safety.

  17. Yeah Infinity War was a 10 outta 10, most quotable movie I’ve seen in some time. Also, giant Peter Dinklage, you can’t go wrong with giant Peter Dinklage.

    “Dude. How long have you been standing there?”

    “An hour.”

    “An hour?!?”

    “I’ve mastered the ability of standing so incredibly still, that I become invisible. Watch.” *slowly raises snack to mouth*

    “…You’re eating a zargnut.”

    “But my movement, is so slow, it’s imperceptible. I’m sure I’m invisible”

    *Mantis comes in* “HI DRAX!”

    “Dammit!”

    I laughed so hard.

  18. Trevor, another exellent Cover 3, you knock these things out the box every time. I agreed with just about every move by Licht until the #12. Having listened to the latest Pewter Natuon Podcast, I thing you guys at PR somewhat agree. I know the argument and I agree; you can never have enough DLs but that doesn’t mean you can’t take one later especially when there is a player on the board the caliber of Derwin James. And I heard one of your colleagues on another podcast qho I will not name state he doesn’t understand all the buzz on James. He didn’t see it at FSU and his fellow podcaster even stated ge didn’t like safeties who can’t cover. With those comments; both demonstrated they didn’t watch James at FSU especially his froah season. It should’ve went down #12 James12th #38 Jones #53 Davis #63 Nathan Shepherd. That way you more efficiently address your glaring needs. I think a corner should of been added during FA but they didn’t so the draft gad to be the source; even still, Stewart was way too high. Love Davis; reminds me of another very talented Ayburn CB all the way down to the bad hands; Carlos Rogers. The Bucs could’ve had a secondary of Grimes, Davis, Evans and James, with Hargreaves at nickel. And you still would have 2 DL units with Shepherd instead of Vea but I digress. I agree with you Trevor, Davis was drafted for one purpose and that was to cover Julio, Thomas and Funchess. I hope Whitehead works out but he looks like a carbon copy of Evans. Hope they find a way to sign Reid or Vaccaro.

  19. Great analysis and discussion, guys.

    All part of an ongoing education for this fan. The more this old fart learns the more watching the games is enjoyed! I read and reread as much as I can find time for as you may note by the date of this comment.

    Keep it up! :-X
    ___________________
    Go Bucs!!!!!