Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by’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

About 24 hours after the Buccaneers 24-17 win over the Carolina Panthers, I figured I’d be writing this Cover 3 about Buccaneers safety Andrew Adams. After all, he did have three interceptions in the game, one of the only a very few players to accomplish such a feat in the last five years. I figured he would be the storyline and he would be the main focus.

But then I went back to the game film and after watching the coach’s film back a few times, I realized that the story here wasn’t really just about Adams, it was about all of it. It was about a defense reborn.

It was about Mark Duffner.

We’ve written about Duffner, the Bucs interim defensive coordinator, plenty over the last few weeks, but this game against the Carolina Panthers was his crowning achievement for many reasons. For one, it capped off a few statistics.

After finishing dead last in the NFL the previous year, and being in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks to start the season, since Duffner has taken over, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are second in the league in sacks (a seven week period of time) – the lone team in front of them is the one they face this upcoming weekend in the New Orleans Saints.

In the first six weeks of the season, the Buccaneers were minus-29 in the point differential. Now, with an improved defense, they’ve been nearly even in the last seven weeks. Over their last four home games, the Buccaneers defense is holding teams to just 16.25 points per game, where on the road they are surrendering an average of 39. Though it seems that they’re having difficulty bringing their show on the road, their improvement at home shows promise – a lot more promise than it did before.

Former Bucs DC Mike Smith and current Bucs coach Mark Duffner - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Former Bucs DC Mike Smith and current Bucs coach Mark Duffner – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

And that’s really where the main theme in all of this comes in, and that is that this is not Smith’s defense anymore; this group has potential.

The Buccaneers defense isn’t just playing better, they’re playing different. I don’t even mean that they’re lining up different or that the players’ roles are different (we’ll get to that more on the next page). They’re just playing different.

As I watched last Sunday’s game from the press box, I not only saw a scheme that was built to go out and be aggressive and win (not playing scared like I was used to seeing under Smith), I saw players play with a fire and focus like I haven’t seen in a long time.

I hate to say it, but with this Buccaneers franchise, even in times it would win and I would hear a player or a coach give a fiery speech at the end of the game, I would always appreciate it, but I never really believed it would make a difference. Ten years of watching a losing team with hundreds of players and many different coaches will do that to you.

But this time, when I saw the coaches and players talk to each other and get each other pumped up, it actually did something. They actually believed it. I think that’s all on taking the identity of Duffner, their new defensive coordinator.

The Buccaneers are still near the bottom of the NFL in many of the major statistical categories when it comes to yards and points given up for the year, but after two games where quarterback Jameis Winston remained turnover-free, and all that pounding of the table for turnovers has come to fruition, the Buccaneers are currently plus-five in that category in the last two games. In fact, their four-sack, four-turnover game last week was a great indication that it’s not just one area having better luck; it really is the entire defense elevating and creating opportunities and stops together.

Under Smith, the Buccaneers gave up 16 touchdowns and and had just one takeaway in five games. Under Duffner, they have just 12 touchdowns given up and six takeaways in seven games. Under Smith, the Bucs had one of the worst third down defenses in the NFL (fluctuated between 29th and dead last). Under Duffner over the last seven weeks, even on the road, they’re the third-best third down defense in the league.

What might be even more impressive than the stats themselves are the players that Duffner is recording them with. No Kwon Alexander. No Kendell Beckwith. A beat-up, 30-year old Gerald McCoy. A hurt Lavonte David. An injured Jason Pierre-Paul. A hobbling Justin Evans. None of the team’s top three cornerbacks last week.

Bucs DBs Andrew Adams, De'Vante Harris, Javien Elliott and Jordan Whitehead - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DBs Andrew Adams, De’Vante Harris, Javien Elliott and Jordan Whitehead – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

I mean, for goodness sake, after Evans went out at halftime the Bucs didn’t have a single defensive back who was a starter for this team – or any team – in Week 1. It was virtually practice squad guys and guys they found on the street.

But perhaps, as my colleague Mark Cook said, maybe that was a good thing. Maybe playing guys who haven’t been tainted by Smith’s conservative, too-safe, risk-adverse defensive approach was what this team needed. These new guys have been able to come in with fresh mentalities and don’t know anything in Tampa Bay other than what Duffner is teaching them.

Winning football.

It’s a crazy concept, right? Coach your guys to be creative and aggressive and you’ve got a chance. This is why called for Smith to be fired and replaced by Duffner during the bye week. And as crazy as it is to type this, that’s what the Bucs have against the high-powered Saints – a chance.

On the defensive side, it’s because of Duffner.

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  1. A much more simple way to look at it – is the simplification and the blitzes that are being called now rather than the four man rush that Bucs had under Smith. Apparently, they are finding ways in blitz situations to get to the QB fast enough to make them make mistakes or take a sack. It was something Smith was not willing to do but Duffer is with nothing to lose.

    Saints will be a huge challenge to make this work again this week, but it might just do it. It will take error free football with Winston and minimal mistakes from the offensive unit for them to have a chance. If the turnovers return all bets are off. The team has the talent to make this work, but the execution is going to have to be nearly flawless to pull off a second upset of this Saints team.

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  2. This defense is night and day different with duffner at the helm. Some said it wouldn’t make a difference whos calling plays but its proven that it has. Duffner is much more aggressive and doesnt jave his his playing 10 yards off. Like smith was the weakest link on this staff, followed closely by Warhop. As for koetter I give him credit for firing his buddy but mike smith should’ve never even been brought back. He had one good 5 game stretch in 2 years and it cost us game after game. Koetter has had to make some tough choices this year and that’s rough but some of his delays on these choices have cost wins, such as playing fitz against Washington and New York. But alas if we dont win out, I dont think koetter is retained and I’m with that decision. Too little too late.

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  3. Good article Trevor.

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  4. Let’s see what happens I two more games.

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  5. Bucs have the number one offense in the league for the entire season. The last seven games we have a top ten defense.
    And, our new kicker is perfect.
    The Bucs do not need to fire anyone. Y’all, things are going to get a lot worse if we clean house.
    If we keep the current staff, we’ll be a playoff team next year.

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  6. I think Koetter has made a couple of good decisions this year, and a few not so good ones. Handing the playing calling over to Monken was a good decision, taking it back for that one game was a bad one. But he learned from it and gave it back the next week. He DID stay with Smith too long IMO. After the Chicago game, it was clear that Smith didn’t have any answers and he should have made the move at the bye week, but I can understand why he gave Smith one further game. Hindsight is always 100%. However, he did make the good decision to let him go and another one to promote Duffner to DC was another good call. Ultimately, it’s the Glazers call but I don’t see any top level coaches that are going to line up to take this Bucs Head coaching job next year so I would give the current staff (minus Warhop) another year. This all depends on the team still looking competitive the last four games and maybe winning another couple of games. Lose all four and even a competitive showing probably isn’t going to help. But if the Bucs can improve, one more year seems enough of a gamble compared to blowing it up and starting again. I hate the constant turn over.

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  7. I didn’t think there was any chance of Koetter being here next season, but Duffner may just save all their jobs. Except for Warhop. He has to go, as does whoever coaches the ST

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  8. Beating a garbage 49ers team and a Panthers team on a losing streak means little. Let’s see what happens the next 3 games. That will tell the story. I would bet we’re 5-10 after that and all of these people will be gone. too little too late. The Glazers cannot go into 2019 with this regime if they want to sell tickets. If they win out maybe its a different story but that not going to happen. Saints are coming off 11 days rest. we already beat them. No way they lose this Sunday and go 0-2 to the Bucs

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    • It’s any given Sunday in this league buddy, just ask the colts who lost to a jags team that had lost seven in a row. So tired of the excuses some of you come up with when this team wins. It’s laughable at this point. What are you going to say if they beat the saints??…. “well the saints had lost the week before and were on a losing streak?” Lol smdh

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      • You’re right about that Chef. They’re all ready to mark their asterisk beside the W.

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  9. I just caught myself looking at playoff scenarios on… Crazy.

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  10. I freakin agonize over whether or not Koetter should be fired. Some days I think yes, others I think no. It’s pretty evident that this team has the horses to win football games against good teams. Just look at last week’s game. It’s also pretty evident that we need better coaching in specific areas of the game if this team is going to be consistent winner. My opinion is that if Koetter refuses to lose Warhop, he’s gotta go. That’s a given. I also think he’s go to go if he gets blown out in any of the remaining games. He stays if they continue to play well. Note, I’m not talking about wins and losses. I’m talking about how the team plays on the field. This team could play well against a team like the Saints and lose. It happens. I’m looking for how the team actually handles its business on the field during these last 4 games.

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    • The biggest reason I wasn’t on the bandwagon this year about this team was the coaching staff, particularly Smith and Warhop, but especially Warhop. Both were given one more year than they should have gotten. While I kinda/sorta see why Koetter decided to keep Smith, Warhop should have been given his walking papers. The offensive line has talent and he hasn’t got anything out of it. Additionally he’s responsible for the running game and that’s been a bust this year as well.

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  11. If the Bucs win out, or get to 8-8, I think the decision to stay the course with Koetter and Licht is an easy one for the Glazers. The tough decision for them is if the Bucs win only 1 or 2 more games. Will the team have shown enough improvement in the post-Smith era to justify keeping one or both men?

    I’m not going to hope for a playoff spot just yet, though. I just want to continue seeing this team improve week-to-week first. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again. I like what I’m seeing from Buckner’s D-line, but the toughest test is coming up next Sunday. If our Bucs play as well as they did last Sunday, they’ll definitely have a good shot at winning.

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  12. Nice article Trevor-
    2nd guessing & hindsight are luxury for fans & publications have.

    I remember when Smith was considered a top HC candidate a couple years ago. When the BUCS resigned Smith as DC PR came out and wrote that the best FA pick up was resiging Smith. Oh how wrong PR & some fans were. Off with their heads!!! Can’t be wrong

    The last 1 1/2 years with smith many would argue that lack of D impact players, injuries, depth, and offensive turnovers was the Achilles heel to the defense. I’m sure Koetter & Licht questioned whether it was Smith or the players they had k

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    • Smith looked like a genius when he strung together five improbable victories in November and December, 2016 against the likes of the Saints, Chiefs, and Seahawks. Signing him the next year seemed like a no brainer.
      What ever happened to that Mike Smith?

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  13. Players left. Timing of the change is hard to scrutinize.

    Still amazing to everyone that Smith was that bad. Maybe NFL teams knew smith and no tape on Duffners D. Adjustments coming? We’ll see

    Go Bucs

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  14. Although H.C.’s get to pick their staffs, Licht needs to take responsibility for letting Smith remain D.C. so long, and still sticking with Warhop. He has the power to hire, and fire, had he said after last season we need a better D.C. even if he thought it was Duffner he should’ve pulled the trigger. What was Koetter going to do quit in protest if his bud was fired? Koetter has been way to slow making decisions that need to be made. The guy has been scrambling all year. They stuck with Martin to long, should of given D Jax the trade he was seeking at the deadline. Completely miss handled the Jameis situation. Yes he needed benching during the Cinn game, even then he made the move to late, but to then ride Fitz for a three game losing streak? These two are a clown show. If any of you think they now get it, you’re going to be fooled again. Ultimately these last four games will decide their fate. My guess is they lose three out of four, and are shown the door.

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  15. Ahhh, Trevor always comes through with a great article.

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  16. This is a playoff team, if Mike Smith was fired in January 2017. No doubt.

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  17. Part of the reason why I still think Koetter should be gone is because he truly thought Mike Smith wasn’t a problem for the defense..I remember him defending him earlier this year saying that firing him wouldn’t do anything..guess koetter was wrong again huh? I’m still on the fence with Koetter..the team seems love him, sometimes the team shows great potential under him and other times not…trouble with play calling, stupid challenge flag error, or any other boneheaded mistakes he makes..I’m just not sold on koetter.

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  18. “The Killer Tomatoes!!!”

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  19. I wanted Koetter out after last season.. and I still do because of decisions like this. Leaving Mike Smith in during the bye week was inexcusable. I realise ATL was next but it has been long enough to go with the familiarity excuse.

    No plays from the 20, that attempt vs ATL still bothers me
    two challenges without being able to
    the mishandling of the Winston suspension (he wasn’t the first coach to do this, but he put his own spin on it)
    taking over play calling vs Washington (this should’ve been enough)
    Sticking with Fitzception hoping foir Fitzmagic for too long
    allowing (really endorsing it) Djax to cause internal friction
    holding out for Canezero too long.
    Sticking with Warhop way too long which leads to
    Failure to develop a running game.

    My list is longer, but this is a slow starting coach. This team was turned around because of a pair of fiery Coordinators that showed up after Koetter quit. Go look at the pressers just three weeks back. He was done. The Coordiators took this team over.

    At some point, Koetter will need to put his thumbprints on the game. Then the losing will start again. The other thing. If perfect play from the QB position is required to win, (which it apparently is) then it is a bad system.

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    • I really think you are on to something with the ” Coordinators showed up after Koetter quit”. I whole hardedly agree with that and had not really recognized that perspective.

      Well thought out!

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    • I mentioned koetter’s defeated look on his face too a few weeks back, good point you bring up.

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    • I agree with tnew’s comments above and specifically what the inaction early in the season has cost the Bucs. There’s no running game and nothing thus far to really effectively evaluate talent for next year based on how poorly the whole unit has played. We have to make a decision on Donovan Smith this offseason and without a real sense of what player he is with effective coaching.

      Warhop needs to be fired no matter what happens in the offseason. I’m willing to give the staff another shot if they win 3 of the remaining 4 games. Which is a tall order. If they can beat Atlanta at home AND the Cowboys on the road AND either Saints at home or Ravens on the road then I’m willing to give the staff another chance to build next year.

      But we should know what we have with RoJo already and we don’t. The secondary and we don’t, etc. We should have a better sense of what we need from a personnel standpoint going into the offseason and no matter who is at the helm we still have to figure these things out almost from square 1 and we shouldn’t have to.

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  20. surferdudes, are there two of you or do you have multiple personalities. Sometimes you write some very insightful viewpoints and then you offer up a real Debbie Downer like today.
    MudManVa, you hit it dead on with that comment about Smith after his first year.

    tnew, where do you get this bizarre idea that Kotter quit the team. I have a strong feeling you have been listening to WDAE and the knockleheads on there.

    Are you aware they have just about as much experience and insight when dealing with the NFL as the hot dog vendor down the street. The only difference between them and the vendor is they know how to fill dead air.

    I have said this before and I will say it again, the reason the players keep playing for Koetter is he keeps everything in house and doesn’t throw anyone on the team under the bus.

    So when he says, “I don’t know what to do about these guys not being able to score in the redzone,” he is throwing himself on the sword for them.

    He knows what to do about it but he isn’t going to throw anyone under the bus.

    What do you expect him to say.

    “Well I’m going to work on the center snap with the center becuase he bungled that play, I’m going to spend a long time with Dotson because of that illegal motion I’m going to work a longer amound of time with Smith so he knows how to block and doesn’t get Fitz killed and fumble the ball on the 3 and I’m going to work with Fitz not to throw into over under double coverage like Winston likes to do.”

    Is that what you want him to say

    Because that is what caused the Bucs to lose against the Redskins. It wasn’t the play calling, it was the execution and the mental errors of the players. But like most of the stupid media, you want to blame Koetter.
    Try thinking for yourself.
    Also, whever I hear someone say the 49ers are a lousy team it really shows me how ignorant they are. Going into the game the 49ers had the tenth best defense in the league. Against the Panters, they had the 14th ranked one.
    Some of you guys really make as much sence as Ron Rivera firing his defensive assistants after Cam throws four INTs. Brilliant.

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  21. Coach K is no different than a 2nd year player as head coach of an NFL team.
    Fans expect, or should I say pay for perfection, which is rarely obtainable in any endeavor.
    Periodic setbacks are part of the game, but as long as there is continual improvement in his game management and the team does not quit on him he would seem to be growing into the position.
    Winston must continue his improved decision making, ball security and maturity, as he was the foundation for the selection of Coach K.
    He alone holds the key to Coach K’s future as head coach, as they truly are an arranged marriage.
    If the D continues to play with fire, aggression, creativity and can continue to keep us in games, our new DC and roster provide us with a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
    As for an earlier dismissal of Smith, perhaps, but hindsight is 20/20 considering the prior weak line and back roster.
    With the perceived upgrades needing time to develop and injuries, some delay did not seem unreasonable, however, the bye week might have been a better time for a transition plan.
    Friendships and business can be tough for any man to manage.
    I am not confident that a complete house cleaning will improve our chances for success anytime soon.
    Time will tell for this fan, but continued improvement on all the above might get my buy in to stay the course, beef up the trenches and ride little blacky like John Wayne in True Grit.

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  22. Great article, as always, Trevor.

    It’s HIGHLY unlikely the Bucs get to 9-7 (obviously). New Orleans is super good and has had a mini-bye week after a devastating loss vs Dallas. They will be pissed about week 1. We have to play at Dallas and Baltimore against very tough defenses and a highly mobile Ravens QB and Zeke and Amari Cooper in Dallas. Atlanta won’t be easy either.

    BUT, if the Bucs are in each game. If they are close; IF they improve their play (especially defensively) on the road, I think Koetter and Licht come back. Obviously, Duffner stays at DC. Warhop needs to go far away and stay there. Koetter and Jameis need to hug it out or go to counseling or to Ford’s Garage (how’s that for “a segue”?) or to a day spa to get over their issues and move on.

    It would be interesting to see how a full offseason learning DUFFNER’S defense impacts/improves our team. It would be freaking awesome if we didn’t have a full offseason of uncertainty over some off-field BS regarding Jameis.

    It would be interesting to see which players we let walk or cut to save salary and who we get via free agency and the draft.

    It would be terrifying to see how the Glazers would handle yet another coaching and GM search. I just don’t trust them to do it right. Why would I? We have an amazing offense. Our D is (maybe) coming around, which is amazing considering Duffner is basically fighting in another man’s fatigues and way too many practice squad players. Maybe this is how we change the Bucs culture, working through adversity instead of changing leadership every three years…which bring us back to the Glazers and their decision making.

    Remember, they spent two years (in secret) deciding that, yes, having uniform numbers look like a clock radio would be a swell idea especially if they glow in the dark (you know, like a clock radio).

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  23. Good reading, Trevor. Looking forward to the Saints game and a matchup against their offense. There’s definitely more hope in this defense coached by Duffner!

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  24. Drd, the 49ers are a bad team. They just got their brains beat in again by Seattle. If you want to give the Bucs props for that win go ahead. The Panthers lost four in a row coming in, and with four turnovers only lost by a score. Now we find out Cam has a bum shoulder much like what we saw out of Winston last year when he was hurt. I’m not being a downer, I’m being a realist. I don’t believe they beat N.O., Balt, or Dallas, and it wouldn’t shock me if they lost to Atl, although they will to screw our draft like last year. I was cheering for the team Sunday as I always do, and will continue to do. I wish like hell they prove me wrong the next four weeks. I just can’t bring myself to believe they’ve turned some corner. If they end the season as a 5, or 6 win team they need a complete house cleaning.

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  25. Scheming was certainly different against the Kitties.

    After getting gashed in the first quarter by McCaffrey, Duffner had one or two spies almost every play, one on McCaffrey and the other on Olsen or Newton.

    That made Newton hold the ball longer than he wanted allowing pressure to get to him.

    I haven’t seen that since Brooks spied on Vick.

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  26. well surferdude, I tend to agree with you if they finish with 5 or 6 wins but I don’t speculate on such things till the end of the season.
    I don’t know if they come out with a win against the Saints this week but if they do, that certainly changes a lot of things.
    I believe the key to beating the Saints is the way the hated Cowboys did.
    Apply lots of pressure up the middlet, don’t let him step up into the pocket and get him off his spot and make him move. I love Drew Brees when he isn’t playing us but he is a pure pocket passer and when he can stay in there like that, he will cut you to pieces.

    I never said the 49ers were a good team, I must mentioned they have a pretty good defense.

    And as far as Cam Newton’s shoulder, it sounds like he got one of those Al Chervyk injuries,, the golfer played by Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. Perhaps he got it in the game when the Bucs kept smacking him in the mouth.

    HE sure didn’t look much like Superman.
    And if the Bucs had the 49ers defense they would easily be 8-4 instead of 5-7.

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  27. Great Article. Totally agree. Duffner needs to stay on. Todd Monken too. That last one might be difficult. He is going to get some calls after this Season. Bucs may have to offer him a sweet deal. Both of them.

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  28. I really like Koetter as a coach and as a human being. I do not know the man intimately of course. Like all of you I make a judgment based on what I see and what I think I know in general. I have been going round and round, back and forth with my own opinion of whether Koetter should be given another year.

    Today , December 4th, I listened the Commish on his podcast. He said some things that have made me finally come to a decisive conclusion. They were in regards to the overall patterns of the recent years and the patterns that are common in many of the games under Dirk’s leadership.

    I have come to the conclusion that Dirk Koetter should be replaced. He has not grown into a first rate NFL head coach. He lacks something that the top tier coaches have. We can analyze, discuss and debate forever, but I believe the talent has been sufficient no matter what, for the past year and a half or more, for great coaching to take us to the next level (not necessarily the Super Bowl winning level yet).

    The winning coaches find a way no matter what happens during a given season. This means of course that I do think that Licht has performed in his responsibilities at a sufficiently high enough level.
    Go Bucs!!!!

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  29. Trevor is spot on with his observation that the Defense was playing “differently”. From my perch, the youngsters were out there having fun and playing with a bit of swagger. A trait that has been somewhat lacking since the Colts game in 2003. How Dirk Koetter and Duffner have achieved this with the collection of basically wannabees playing the back seven is incredible and deserves our applause. Surely the Glazers recognize this too.

    As someone said, the Offense has been near the top of the league, even with the turnovers, and a Defense that, at least the first half of the season, rarely forced a punt. I’m pretty sure if Cairo Santos would have been our PK from the start, those demoralizing missed kicks would have been eliminated. If the misses affect us I’m sure it devastates the psyche of the team.

    What has impressed me the most is that the team hasn’t quit and in fact has demonstrated a lot of fire and desire. I’m willing to see how the team continues to play these last four games and not necessarily just focus on the outcome, before deciding my official opinion on Koetter’s and Licht’s fate.

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  30. If coach K keeps his job it will because of two things – Winston not reverting to his old form AND the desire to keep Duf running the D.

    I’d be fine with that but Licht still absolutely must go. If you don’t believe that take the time to pull up each of his drafts, look who he selected and look at the areas he neglected. I’m open to a fact-based review of our draft history proving me wrong.

    FA has also been a problem but that’s always an area where it’s hard to really hit more than 1-2x a year – which makes Licht’s failings drafting even more damning.

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  31. It’s great that they are winning. I get it. But I wonder if it was the “fantastic defense” or just how poorly Cam played. Overthrows, forcing the ball into coverage, missing check downs. Go back and watch the first video and there clearly are two guys open underneath and Cam forced the ball to his target. On another note, they now have a kicker that so far understands the ball goes between the yellow posts. And I actually watched Jamies take a sack against CAR and though, wow what a great sack. Instead of just heaving it downfield, he actually just got what he could and took the loss. I still can’t understand some of Koetter’s logic though at times. Like the challenge on the Brate non-catch. Could someone upstairs just turn on the Fox broadcast and just say “don’t challenge that.?

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  32. Ok….let’s get real. Just on the principle that Koetter did not fire Smith on the whistle of week 16 last year, is grounds for dismissal. Period. Endgame. We had to endure another wasted season, because why? Loyalty? F him. He’s a terrible coach, and we can keep spinning our wheels if that’s what you all want. Same conversation next year at this time. 4-7. 3-8. no matter. He is NOT good. CLEAN HOUSE, please. GM… everything. Start over. This is going nowhere. Not today. Not tomorrow. Never. Get rid of them all. Winston as well. Start again. Look into the stands. It explains everything. Bucfan…out.

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  33. Our defense was LAST in the LEAGUE last year. In just about… EVERYTHING. Well… no surprise…we were still there, up until about 2 weeks ago. Fire this whole bunch of nitwits, and let’s MOVE ON. Just sayin. They suck. No willing or wishing, is going to make the last three years go away. None. Terrible coach. Terrible GM. That’s it. Twist and turn all the stories you want. This organization is a complete shame. BLOW IT UP, and START OVER. It is what it is right now, but please… stop the pattern of stupidity. As Einstein said in his definition of insanity….

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