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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

So what came first, the chicken or the egg?

What is to blame for Tampa Bay’s horrendous defense this year – the pass rush or the coverage? Or is it the injuries? Or is it the coaching? Or is it the players?

The confusing part about the Bucs’ defensive struggles over the last few weeks is that the answer to all of those question is “yes” – to an extent.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the third worst defense in the NFL in total yards given up per game (408.5) and are fourth worst in the NFL in total points given up per game (25.2). As you would expect, they’re the third worst team in the NFL in terms of passing yards given up per game thanks, in part, to the struggles in their secondary, which led to high amounts of passing yards being given up in the Vikings, Giants, Patriots and Cardinals games. However, against the run, to start the year, they had been great, limiting teams to less than 100 yards in half of their contests.

Bucs DC Mike Smith - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs DC Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

But then came the last two games where the Buccaneers have surrendered 160 and 173 yards on the ground while still letting both teams air it out, as well.

So what gives? How is a team that limited the Bears to just 20 yards rushing a month ago now getting gashed for more than 150 yards on average in the last two weeks?

Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, safeties Keith Tandy and T.J. Ward, and defensive end Ryan Russell being limited or out due to injury didn’t help, but I think the Bucs’ defensive problems run deeper than that.

I think it’s coaching, and not just in what defensive plays are called and which ones aren’t – although that obviously has its blame, as well. I think it’s a philosophy flaw that is crippling the Bucs defense, or at least making their margin for error far too small.

Since Dirk Koetter’s time in Tampa Bay, we’ve continued to hear the term “explosive plays” or “explosives,” as they coaches will call them for short. Explosive plays are categorized by the Bucs as passes of 16 yards or more and run plays of 12 yards or more – don’t ask me why those are the numbers that Koetter chose to chart, I have no idea.

Last season, the Buccaneers were the only team in the NFL without a 50-plus yard touchdown on offense, and this offseason they did what they could to try to remedy that as soon as they could by bringing in players like DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard. It was clear that there was an emphasis on explosive plays – maybe too much of one as we’ve seen early on this season with  lack of simple plays being completed.

I believe there was an emphasis on explosive plays on the defensive side of the ball, too, except, on the flip side, it’s about limiting them instead of creating them.

Last year the Buccaneers defense gave up six plays of 50 or more yards, which was tied for the fifth most in the league. This year, almost halfway through the season, they’ve only done that one time, which is tied for the best (lowest) in the league.

That, to me, tells me they’ve really put an emphasis on not getting beat deep, which is cool, but it’s coming at a price.

The Buccaneers often like to play their safeties in what teams call a “Cover 2 Shell,” which is simply two deep safeties rather than maybe one deep and one helping the linebacker in the run or possible in man coverage in the slot. When they play two deep, however, they’re not exactly in helping roles; they’re more in quarters (Cover 4) coverage. What the difference is, is that instead of having, say, the outside cornerbacks in man coverage with the two deep safeties each playing a deep zone (wherever that may take them) over the top to help out, they’re dividing the field up into fourths with the corners in more of a total zone look. That means each is still technically on their own for deep plays.

Quarters coverage has a time and a place, but I don’t like it as a base.

Here’s why.

People constantly ask me what the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is in terms of the defense. By the end of the 2016 season, this defense was rockin’. They were confusing quarterbacks, getting sacks and grabbing takeaways. That was a catalyst for their big win streak. This year they don’t have that, and a good portion of that last year, if we’re being honest, was because of luck.

Tampa Bay is third worst in the NFL in terms of passing yards given up per game this year, but last year they were only better than this year by 40 yards a game. It wasn’t as if things were that different, they were just getting takeaways.

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

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

That brings us back to the safeties. Instead of playing their safeties in definitive, deep zone, box help or man coverage roles, they’re trying to keep some sort of mystery by putting both safeties (whoever they are) equally deep at the snap. This is so both of the safeties have the option of either playing a deep safety look if a receiver to their side starts beating the cornerback or playing a “robber” zone role over the middle. Remember Keith Tandy’s interception at home last year against Drew Brees? That’s a robber look. Instead of backpedalling at the snap, you’re sort of waiting in the area over the middle, watching the quarterback’s eyes and hopefully jumping a route.

When Mike Smith’s style of defense was still relatively new last year, teams played into the Bucs’ hands and threw into those robber zones much more than they do this year. Now that other teams know how Tampa Bay’s safeties are going to play, they’re not doing that as often. So instead this year you just have both safeties in no-man’s land – not deep enough to help the corners and not close enough in the box to stop the run.

The result is this.

Where the Buccaneers were first in the NFL in 50-yard plays given up, they’re in the back half of the league in terms of 20-yard plays given up.

And if you go even smaller to 10-yard plays given up (still a first down per one of these plays), it gets even worse.

Throughout all three charts, you’ll see teams like Indianapolis, Kansas City and New England on the wrong side of things. Those are just bad pass defenses. But, on the other hand, there are some good defenses that either get unlucky or just have a blown coverage every now and are higher on the 50-plus yard chart, like the Eagles, the Cardinals and the Jaguars, who progressively get lower as the yards get shorter on “explosive plays.”

That’s how you want things to go. If you get unlucky or a quarterback just hits a perfect deep pass on you, fine. Good for them. But the Buccaneers are the opposite. Tampa Bay seems to be so worried about defending the deep ball that it’s actually hurting itself because it is letting offenses move the ball through the air at will on 10-20 yard plays with soft coverage.

This is the whole topic around Vernon Hargreaves (and now Brent Grimes since we saw even him struggle with it in the Bills game). If both safeties are play at an even depth and either one them could be a “robber” player and not a deep zone player, you, as an outside cornerback, can’t rely on deep help because you don’t know which one it’s going to be until it happens. That means you have to keep everything in front of you – and that means everything.

That’s why when you saw receiver John Brown of the Cardinals run a 25-yard comeback route on a flea flicker against Hargreaves. It worked because Hargreaves is up against a speedster one-on-one and has no idea if he’s going to get help. I have to think he’s being told by coaches to not let anything over his head and that’s why you see this lack of aggression and confidence – it’s all due to safety play and safety positioning or lack thereof. So if one safety is going to be a robber and one is going to be a deep man, but neither cornerback knows which one it’s going to be, how does that help them?

The answer: it doesn’t – at all. In fact, if it does happen to help them, it’s either due to a predictable offense going up against great preparation during the week, or it’s just luck.

That’s why I think Tampa Bay is so much higher on the yardage-per-play list on 10 and 20-yard passes, because they’re so far off in coverage because I think they’re being told above all else they can’t get beat deep while having no definitive help.

The philosophy makes sense: don’t give up big, quick touchdowns. Every defense wants to prevent that. But it appears the length or the scheme at which Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to limit that is actually making things worse.

When you don’t have definitive roles at your safety positions, your cornerback, especially ones in non-close coverage, might panic. And you know what else can’t happen when you play your safeties the way the Bucs are? They can’t help the run.

Click to the next page to get an X’s and O’s film session of how the Bucs are failing in run defense and why help isn’t on the way because they aren’t letting the help, well, help.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

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: trevor@pewterreport.com
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Bschucher
Bschucher(@bschucher)
4 years ago

This is simply depressing.

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
4 years ago

great breakdown of the system Trevor. I appreciate you explaining the thought processes in what they are trying to do. To me though, it all begins/ends with the D line. If they were able to consistently sack the QB then the turnovers would come much more often and the rest of the defense wouldn’t have to worry if they have help or not because the QB wouldn’t have all freakin day to sit back there and throw. Watching Case keenum light them up was just sickening. It still burns me that that guy continues to own the Bucs. I only… Read more »

BrianDorry55
BrianDorry55(@briandorry55)
4 years ago

Could not agree more man. This passive defense crap is a slow death that simply wears down your players physically and mentally. At least if you’re playing with some aggression and calling plays that put confidence in your players, you’re giving them something to play for. You’ve got a higher likelihood of forcing turnovers which will inject life into the defense. It seems like calling a more aggressive game is how this defense came alive last year…so why did we revert back? This defense is running in quicksand right now and will be until Mike Smith wakes up. It’s funny… Read more »

stlbucsfan
stlbucsfan(@stlbucsfan)
4 years ago

The problem is the front office and the coaching. As they love to repeat so often “these are our guys, there’s no calvary coming to save the day” well that’s due in large part to you all not addressing any of the problems we currently have. The defensive line resigned Will Gholston who has never been anything than more than a solid DE against the run. We brought in Baker who was a run stuffer up the middle and then crickets. Yet we stand here shocked that the pass rush hasn’t improved yet we did nothing to address it. We… Read more »

stlbucsfan
stlbucsfan(@stlbucsfan)
Reply to  stlbucsfan
4 years ago

I disagree, I have called VHIII the worst CB in football all last year and the summer but I was met with excuse after excuse about why he was torched so often. Spence was talked up all summer by everybody affiliated with the Bucs so fans from afar had no choice but to wait and see how it panned out. His 4.5 sacks last year were decent but certainly not enough that no offseason additions were needed at that position. Also people assumed the team had a good gauge on Jacquis Smith and his health which were obviously not correct.… Read more »

Brobear
Brobear(@brobear)
Reply to  stlbucsfan
4 years ago

McDougald wouldn’t do anything to put this defense on track so dont kid yourself. And why should anyone listen to you? You just said that you bashed our first two picked rookies all last year, so yeah I wouldn’t listen to you either. Licht has gotten us talent, that has never been disputed so you taking shots at him too is ridiculous. Could we use more pass rush? Of course. But the fact that you called Baker a run stuffer when he was known as a pass rusher in Washington makes me trust you even less than the guy bashing… Read more »

stlbucsfan
stlbucsfan(@stlbucsfan)
Reply to  stlbucsfan
4 years ago

Brobear you can say what you want about McDougald but when the Bucs turnaround started he was starting and making plays. People shouldn’t listen to me because I said Aguayo and VHIII were trash and they were? Not sure what kind of sense that makes but have at it. Baker came to us with 1 more sack last year than McDonald who nobody would call a pass rushing DT. Both solid players but nobody called Baker a pass rusher outside of your house. Make the excuse for Spence all you want but all I see is a guy who produced… Read more »

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
Reply to  stlbucsfan
4 years ago

tell it like it is…accurate,, lets be real. Last 9 superbowls where the #1 offense went against the #1 defense..who won?????…DEFENSE EVERY SINGLE TIME!!!!! 9-0

hello, draft some DE’s and Nose Tackles that will kill the freaking QB, pick up some proven players through the draft and free agency. it’s not that complicated, study the previous SB winners!!!!!!!

Brand G
Brand G(@b3000)
4 years ago

I think Mike Smith should be fired immediately… Dirk Koetter needs a 6-7 game win streak and a playoff berth to save his job…

Alldaway 2.0
Alldaway 2.0(@alldaway)
4 years ago

People owe VH3 an apology.

The problem with this scheme is that the safties are playing too soft along with the CBs. And cover 4 works when it is used sparingly mixed in with cover 3 and cover 2. If Smith insists on cover 4 so much the Bucs might as well switch to prevent defense full time.

This is crazy that a modern NFL defense is built upon prevent and cover 4 principles. Crazy.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan(@naplesfan)
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
4 years ago

Yep – Trevor has been writing this for the last several weeks now. Some fans prefer to name scapegoats and then it’s all just a meme and narrative thereafter, facts be damned. Players still have to make plays. But coaches gotta coach. Last year I thought Coach Smith was on the way to building the next great Bucs defense. However, our eyes aren’t lying, and the stats aren’t lying, and the Ls are reality, not subject to argument. Either Coach Smith makes some major adjustments and gets our defense back on track again, or we are headed for another top… Read more »

Alldaway 2.0
Alldaway 2.0(@alldaway)
Reply to  Naplesfan
4 years ago

Even Grimes can’t hold up in this scheme anymore. Bottom line is that the Bucs don’t have the worst CB’s in the league but the stats would indicate this. The scheme is seriously flawed for the back end players. As for the front seven the Bucs need to be more aggressive using their down linemen on run down situations or short yardage. Why bring in Baker if you are going to take him off the field? WTF? Can a team run on a five down line formation of Gholston, Baker, McDonald, McCoy and Ayres? Lets find out? A 3-3-5 alignment… Read more »

Naplesfan
Naplesfan(@naplesfan)
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
4 years ago

Yup.

The other thing is, defensive backfields rarely if ever perform well when the front seven isn’t putting any pressure on the quarterback or stopping the run,.

It’s a common statement in football that “it all starts in the trenches” … and it’s completely true.

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
4 years ago

i really can’t believe what i am reading here. I know this will piss people off, but please, just be REAL. These r professional athletes!. if i paid you MILLIONS every year, you better believe I am going to hold YOU accountable. What the hell is wrong with our society who keeps making excuses for mediocrity?

scubog
scubog(@scubog)
Reply to  Eric
4 years ago

We not only make excuses for mediocrity; some want to reward it.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan(@naplesfan)
Reply to  Eric
4 years ago

Nobody is making excuses for players, but you are making excuses for coaches by blaming the team performance on players who played great until they got into the current scheme. VHIII was a unanimous all America cornerback in college, He was projected by virtually all draft experts to be a clear first round, top 10 talent, and we got him at no. 11. He plays hard, has a great attitude, is healthy, and he didn’t suddenly lose his talent or get stupid when he got to the Bucs. It’s not just VHIII either. Grimes is also not performing much better,… Read more »

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
Reply to  Alldaway 2.0
4 years ago

REALLY??? apologize to a guy who was drafted in the 1st round to be an impact player! Sink or swim bitch! 11 overall, you better be able to fucking play, period. I bet you make all kinds of excuses for people around you on a daily basis. This guy is paid MILLIONS to get RESULTS, not EXCUSES!!!

Alldaway 2.0
Alldaway 2.0(@alldaway)
4 years ago

Also, McDonald should be the starter at NT and use Baker in a rotation with McCoy. Having Baker rotating at NT or even starting at NT isn’t working as his stamina isn’t holding up.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan(@naplesfan)
4 years ago

Your suggestion makes a lot of sense.

Others: put TJ Ward on for all the snaps. Keep Justin Evans out there too for a majority, and let Conte relieve him as needed.

Keep Beckwith on the field too, along with David and Alexander .. we’ll have the best LB corps in the NFL, and that will make a big difference too, especially in stopping the run.

surferdudes
surferdudes(@surferdudes)
4 years ago

Since they don’t dress Siliga, and red shirted Stevie T to I.R., I can only assume they don’t want a true nose tackle. Or maybe they need to justify Bakers signing. Still makes you wonder why then they would draft Mr.T, and sign Siliga. We bought the kool aid that Smith, unlike Lovie would adjust his scheme to fit the players talents, that was false. The real problem is the Glazers, who are constantly making the wrong choice’s for coaches, and G.M.. Hire someone with a proven track record like the Jags did with Coughlin to straiten out this mess.… Read more »

tog
tog(@tog)
4 years ago

Good article. 1) What’s the difference between a 3-4 and 3-3-5? Like the rest of the NFL, the Bucs are going to be in a nickel package most of the time. So if you’re base is a 3-4 then a 3-4 becomes a… 3-3-5. I’ll agree it looked ugly at times. I saw that TD run by McCoy and that middle was wide open. Purely by alignment they were giving up a TD. Poor coaching. And nice catch with the run to the right side where the safety didn’t come down. They were in what looked like C3 and clearly… Read more »

tog
tog(@tog)
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

1. Correct. And as you pointed out, some of that alignment from the 3-3-5 was abysmal. Wasn’t just on that TD run in the red zone. 4. I mean clearly they need to change things up. They tried more man against the Bills (it seemed like from the broadcast) and it appeared to work better (although against a terrible WR corps). But then again, why are you running more man against a mobile QB like Taylor? I’ve argued for more clearly defined roles from the safeties going back to Raheem and his interchangeable safeties. For that reason, I liked Schiano’s… Read more »

Gyronole
Gyronole(@gyronole)
4 years ago

This is my favorite Cover 3 to date! It’s on point, and a perfect example of why this team is struggling. This explosive emphasis on offense and defense is backwards. This is why the offense sucks in the redzone to date. The offense is offensive too. Jameis doesn’t throw a good deep ball, he is the master of trying to fit the ball into tight spots. You create points by thinking first downs lead to touchdowns. Master the first down plays and redzone scoring will become simple. Then when defenses are trying to take away first downs, it creates explosive.… Read more »

scubog
scubog(@scubog)
Reply to  Gyronole
4 years ago

I was just in Steeler Country two weeks ago. I’m from the area and really admire how those fans love their Steelers. Wish we had some of that here.

Horse
Horse(@horse)
4 years ago

This is the way I see it. Smith needs to go because if he hasn’t seen what most of us are seeing; he shouldn’t be allowed to continue in destroying the Defensive side of the team; it’s exactly what he is doing and the last Smith did it to both sides. I’m giving Koetter a pass because the offense is not the problem and Licht is the one who hired Smith. I think this is a big problem for Koetter now because he knows he has to get in his past boss face and tell him it’s not working. Licht… Read more »

Horse
Horse(@horse)
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

I hear you. So when do you call it a meltdown? Are you saying there is no one who can fill Smith shoes within the defensive coaches? The only problem I see if we wait until the end of the season it might mean we might have to change most of the defensive players because their confidence in the organization might be compromised. Allowing to continue in losing due to defensive scheme and not do anything about it, could be worse. Okay so lets see what happens in the next two games. Go Bucs! Get a win!

Buc76
Buc76(@jjjj)
4 years ago

You’re on the right track but I would go with Derrick Brooks as the GM. He is in the job now with the Storm doing the same thing Elway did before he went to the Broncos. Koetter is not Head Coach material. He has to be responsible as the Head Coach for Smith’s failures and Licht’s 2016 draft is turning into one of the biggest busts in history. He should be fired for that alone. Have to keep the Gruden drum banging. For 9 years the guy has been around the NFL seeing what other teams are doing good and… Read more »

scubog
scubog(@scubog)
Reply to  Buc76
4 years ago

He does resemble the professor.

Buc 1976
Buc 1976(@robmckenz17gmail-com)
4 years ago

WHAT A DISAPPOINT THIS TEAM IS! I really thought 10-12 wins was possible NOT KNOW 2 teams I thought we would beat we lost to Bills and Cards. I am not sure we could beat the 49ers.

Jordan Chavez
Jordan Chavez(@chavez2324)
4 years ago

I’m gunna start out by saying that I still think we can make the playoffs… We are two games out of the division I believe and haven’t played any divisional games yet. However I do think the coaches are holding our team back.. I am not as against Dirk’s play calling as other fans are. I just don’t like his direction of this team. The players take on the attitude and personality of their coach, and our teams attitude and personality so far this year has been all talk and soft play. And DK seems like a lot of talk…… Read more »

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
4 years ago

where is Macabee???, i have watched this blog for years not, u , by far give the most insight. it seems so simple to me, maybe i am just all f’d up. get a prolific pass rush and you will win the SB

macabee
macabee(@macabee)
Reply to  Eric
4 years ago

I am here Eric! I read every PR comment posted. And you are not F’d up, you’re just confounded as all of us are. You see the problems, I see the problems, they see the problem. Thanks for the compliment, but there is no insight, eloquence, or social commentary that will make a player rush or a tackler tackle, nor does it seem to change the defensive scheme for the following Sunday. After having given my opinion on so many prior Sundays, I leave the responsibility where it lies with the FO and the coaches, and take the admonishment of… Read more »

Eric
Eric(@unbuccingbelievable)
4 years ago

do you realize when the Bucs D was kick ass they recorded an NFL record for consecutive SAC’s at 69 games!. think about that, 69 games in a row with at least 1 sac, most of those games were multiple SAC’s. And now, we are grasping for 1 sac every other game. no wonder we are getting destroyed.

warrenfb12
warrenfb12(@warrenfb12)
4 years ago

Wow that’s ugly. I guess my question is how do u call a foolish game like that when you have a defensive coaching staff with so much NFL experience?

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
4 years ago

I have petty much thought for the past few games it was the scheme that was at the root cause of this defensive debacle and this article has now pretty much confirmed it. The defense looks pretty much how Smith’s defense looked in the last two years in Atlanta without John Abraham. It also has that odd earie look of Lovie Smith’s defense. Yikes. It reminds me of when Mark Arroyo took over as the OC in Smith’s first year and everyone wanted to blame the offensive line for being so bad. My position was that these guys were all… Read more »

scubog
scubog(@scubog)
4 years ago

Really nice work Trevor. With each failure to stop the opponent, the psyche of the team takes another hit. The mentality is so important. We allow the opponent to have so much success their confidence level increases to the point they think they can do anything. This week we need to keep Cam Poutin on the bench with a towel over his head and not doing that Superman gesture.

surferdudes
surferdudes(@surferdudes)
4 years ago

Trevor, as you say it’s way to early to talk firings, so when in your opinion should we start? I mean we win the next two against division foes, we’re right in it. Lose both, I think it’s time to start the talk. I can see us beating Carolina, but our defense against Brees in his house, could get ugly. So Trev, and friends, what will, or won’t it take to keep this staff along with Licht in tact? I say, going 6-10, causes the Glazers to make a move. We were supposed to go the other direction this year,… Read more »

mdsbuc
mdsbuc(@mdsbuc)
4 years ago

So, rather than trying to avoid explosive plays from the opponent’s offense, perhaps we should concentrate on creating explosive defensive plays; sacks, strips, tackles for a loss, INTs, etc.

drdneast
drdneast(@drdneast)
4 years ago

I think the Chinese name for this defense is “Death b a 1,000 cuts.”
Much like Lovie’s.

GoldsonAges
GoldsonAges(@goldsonages)
4 years ago

What came first the chicken or the egg? The answer is 2 chickens, a male and a female in order to fertilize the egg.

If 1 chicken came first the egg could never be and if the egg came first there would have been 1 chicken hatched that was unable to fertilize the egg.

SaskBucs
SaskBucs(@saskbucs)
4 years ago

Great article Trevor. That 3-3-5 is ugly. A lot of good comments here as well. Hopefully Smith had a good long meeting with his defense this week and took their input to use in this week’s game. GMC, David, Ward, Ayers, McDonald, Baker, Grimes are all veteran guys who know how to play football and if Smith lets them help him in utilizing theirs talents this D can turn around quick. I am a fan of Beckwith, he has played well, but he is a rookie and they don’t need to force him on the field. Use heavy 4 man… Read more »

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