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 of the Week
1. hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.
Optimism can be a beautiful thing. It’s often much more enjoyable to look at the positives and think of what could be than to focus on the negatives of what might be.
Optimism is the core of fanhood. Every game, every week, every draft, every offseason and every in-season, there is a sense that “this could be the year” that things turn around; that the goal and vision of the team finally comes together. It is fun to believe in that. It is what makes sports enjoyable; to have faith that the team you cheer for has a chance. It’s what keeps you coming back, even when it may not be as logical as reality may set in to be.
But optimism can also be a disease. Optimism can be blind. It can put its head in the sand and teeter the line of faith and ignorance. It can be something that wastes precious time, and something that disrupts timing that may be good. Optimism can lead you to trust something longer than you should. Optimism can also be a tool to take advantage; a manipulative tactic for those in power to do what they want knowing you’ll always come back. Ironically enough, optimism, when left unchecked, can be the thing that kills true success, though, at its center, success is all it desires.
Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
It was as optimistic of an offseason and training camp as we had seen from the Buccaneers. There were new players and new coaches in different positions ready to make an impact like this town hasn’t seen in over a decade.
Then, the miracles of Week 1 happened: A 48-40 out-dueling of one of the league’s most historic offensive pairings, Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans. Then, the rolling of Week 2 happened: A well-executed home defense that led to a win over Philadelphia, the reigning world champions.
The records and the accomplishments were sky high, and the optimism was even higher.
And now we’re here.
Going into the bye week, the Buccaneers have squandered their 2-0 start and are now an even 2-2, tied for second in the NFC South and now behind the team they beat, the New Orleans Saints, in the division.
The Buccaneers gave away their game to the Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to four first half turnovers that turned out to be too much to overcome, even while scoring 17 unanswered points in the second half. But, that was at home against a bad Steelers team, and due to that, it still appeared as though the Bucs just beat themselves and they were right on track with a good start to the season.
I said last week that the Bears game would be telling for many reasons. The first was that it was coming off their first loss. If they really were the potential powerhouse team we saw in the first two weeks, they’d be able to bounce back. The Bears also presented a few key forks in the road. Chicago’s 3-4 style of defense was a repeat of the front that gave the Bucs offensive line fits when they played the Steelers, and if it really was just an off night then they would be able to fix it. On defense for the Bucs, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was nothing special in his first three games with the Bears, and containing him, though Chicago did have good offensive weapons, would have been doable, in theory, if you believed the Bucs defense could be a Top 15 defense.
Bucs CB Brent Grimes – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
It turns out, they weren’t a powerhouse team, they couldn’t stop the 3-4 front, and Trubisky nearly tied his 2017 total touchdowns in three quarters of work with six touchdown passes.
If you still want to have optimism about the Buccaneers offense, fine. If you still think Todd Monken can pull it together as a play-caller to make the most of the weapons that made the Buccaneers the No. 1 offense in the NFL for two weeks, that is fair. But, on the other side of the ball, the optimism must stop.
And it must stop with Mike Smith as defensive coordinator.
It has been three years now since Smith took over as defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and though their talent has increased every single year, their statistics and production have become worse and worse.
In 2016, the Bucs defense gave up 368 yards per game, on average, which was 10th worst in the league. In 2017, the Bucs defense gave up 378 yards per game, on average, which was dead last in the league. And so far in 2018, the Bucs defense is giving up 445 yards per game, on average, which is worse than any previous year they’ve had.
Here’s some perspective on that. Former Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, who was fired in just two seasons because the Bucs defense (his specialty) was just that awful, never gave up more yards per game than the lowest yards per game average Mike Smith has had in three years. Translation: all three years Mike Smith has been Tampa’s DC have been worse than both of Lovie Smith’s years as head coach/DC.
In Mike Smith’s 36-game tenure as Buccaneers defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay has given up more than 400 yards 19 times, the most in the NFL during that time span. As you would expect, their record isn’t very good when that happens, just 4-15. The Bucs have also given up 30 or more points 13 times in Smith’s 36 games (more than one third of the time), which is second most in that time span, with a record of 1-12.
Through four games in 2017, the Buccaneers defense had given up 1,596 yards and 83 points. This year through four games? 1,832 yards and 132 points.
Better players, worse results.
Bucs CB MJ Stewart – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
If I put on my strongest optimistic goggles, I might be able to stomach all that. The Bucs are very young in the secondary. They also have had unfortunate injuries at cornerback and defensive tackle, which has left their front to be not as ideal as they thought going into the season. I get all that, and perhaps I could even still look past it with some of the context I just mentioned.
But there’s one stat from last week’s loss to the Bears that I can’t look past, one that there is no excuse for.
Going into Week 4, Trubisky had the lowest quarterback rating in the league when pressured with blitzes.
You know how many times the Buccaneers blitzed Trubisky in the first half, the half that results in a 38-3 deficit?
That isn’t lack of experience. It’s not a lack of the correct players up front. It’s not on the scheme or what the team does or doesn’t do well. It’s not about chemistry or communication or lack of technique.
It’s playing scared.
The Buccaneers, though young and banged up, are a talented defense, all things considered, but under Smith they are also scared. They are scared to do what they have to do win football games. They are afraid of the necessary risks you must take to be a defense that actually stops someone in this league. They are content with playing soft until they mess up a big one. They are content with losing.
Players have come and gone, heck, even the scheme has changed some this year for the first time in two years. But the results haven’t.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
After the Bears game, I watched Jason Pierre-Paul, a former world champion, say that that was the worst loss he’s ever been a part of. I watched Vinny Curry, a recent world champion, try to come up with the words to convince himself that that wasn’t who the Buccaneers really were. And you know what else? I watched players like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David quietly sit at their lockers, staring in the carpet, not really knowing what to say.
You know why? Because, to them, it’s not new. Because they’ve already tried to say what they think they’ve needed to say after embarrassing defeats like that. For them, it’s happened before, and over the last three years, nothing’s changed. It’s only gotten worse.
I don’t blame them for their lack of words in such moments, even as leaders. They know they’re helpless. They have been for years, and the biggest problem isn’t the players around them, as fans have been tricked via their optimism into believing.
It’s time for a change, it’s time for a new defensive coordinator.
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: email@example.com
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