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.
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.
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.
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.