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
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.
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.
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.
It’s a crazy concept, right? Coach your guys to be creative and aggressive and you’ve got a chance. This is why PewterReport.com 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.