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
The main number everyone wanted to talk about was 22. Twenty-two sacks was all the Bucs’ roster could muster up in 16 total regular season games in 2017, and that number earned them the lowest ranking in the NFL in terms of getting to the quarterback. The best defensive teams are often the ones with the higher sack numbers. After all, when you sack the quarterback, you win. You force an offense to go backwards. You negate any sort of momentum. And it fuels your side as a defensive front seven. The only thing more valuable than a sack is a takeaway, such as a sack-fumble, and sacks often happen much more.
But there are a few numbers that also held (unfortunate) importance for the Buccaneers’ defense as they headed into the offseason, missing out on the playoffs yet again. The numbers 4.3 and 117.5 should have been beaten into a white board just as much as the number 22 was, maybe even more.
Those numbers were the yards per carry and yards per game averages that the Buccaneers defense gave up in 2017 when it came to opposing teams running the ball. Those numbers were both bottom-10 in the league. You see, it’s not that the Buccaneers couldn’t stop the pass; they couldn’t stop anything. When that’s the case, stopping the run becomes your priority No. 1.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith was in a tough spot last season. Some of that was his own doing, as well as the rest of the coaching staff. After a 2016 season where the Buccaneers finished 9-7 and just missed out on a playoff berth, the coaching staff and front office went into the offseason thinking they had the building blocks and the foundation in place that made them just a few pieces away from contention.
They were wrong.
Instead, 2016 proved to be fool’s gold, as a string of lucky turnovers down the stretch of that season proved to be masks of an ugly defensive roster that reared its true form in 2017. Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy couldn’t take on an entire offensive line by himself. Robert Ayers’ drop off as a No. 2 piece on the defensive line fell off fast. Chris Baker turned out to be one of the worst signing of the NFL offseason. Ryan Russell looked overwhelmed, as did Will Clarke, Noah Spence couldn’t stay healthy. And defensive line coach Jay Hayes didn’t look like he had a clue on how to change it when the “uh-oh” button was flipped about three weeks in.
This left us, the fans the media, hearing hollow words from Smith each week.
“We’ve got to do a better job.”
“It’s on me to get these players right.”
“We have to do a better job coaching these guys.”
Where I admire Smith in his attitude to fall on the sword for his players, such words were counterproductive – though he couldn’t say what he really wanted to say, as Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times wrote earlier this week. It’s not that the Bucs didn’t just have the players to get sacks. They didn’t have the players to stop anything at all, and where that hurt them the most was actually when stopping the run.
“You know, everybody sometimes gets fixated on sacks and putting pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. “But the number one tenet in the game of football is stopping the run. If you can’t get there and have an advantage with the sticks on third down, it’s much harder to rush the passer.’
“We went from one to 32nd in third downs, and it wasn’t because of what we did on third down. It’s what we did on first and second down. We weren’t very efficient on first and second downs. They had third-and-manageables and when you’re in third-and-manageables, it’s tough to defend.”
Stroud went on to write that, “In 2016, opponents faced an average third down of 7.1 yards and produced 5.1 yards per play. Last season, the average third down was 6.88 yards but the Bucs defense allowed 7.1 yards.”
I’m not the best at math – I made it up to calculus my senior year of high school and managed to get a B-minus in the class after all the exams, so I did decent – but those numbers check out to conversions happening on average just about every third down. There’s a lot that goes into that.
Certainly the factors that Scott Reynolds has written about – a lack of aggressiveness with the linebackers that led Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander to each record zero sacks in 2017 was a part of it, as was the philosophy of playing defensive backs so far off in coverage that easy, underneath routes became readily available. But a re-occurring problem for the Buccaneers was stopping the run, and the most damaging part of that isn’t that teams gained the appropriate amount of yards every time they handed the ball off, it was that they could choose to do so at any time and knew they would be relatively successful; that’s what hurt the most.
Cardinals RB Adrian Peterson – Photo by: Getty Images
In 2017, the Buccaneers gave up 4.54 yards on the ground on first down. Think about that. That’s nearly half the goal of the set of down right off the bat. Not good. They then gave up an average of 4.39 rushing yards on second down, now guaranteeing a 3rd-and-very manageable situation almost every time out, just from rushing the football. Finally, the 4.14 rushing yards given up on third down gives you a picture of the 4.3 total rushing yards given up on average, which is just not acceptable.
It was just too easy to run the ball if you were an opposing team against the Buccaneers in 2017, and that left general manager Jason Licht and the rest of his front office staff asking the million dollar question: Where’s the beef?
Every single coaching staff, every single front office will all tell you the same thing: “We want to be a tough football team that wins in the trenches.”
So what happened? Where was it? Where was the toughness? The size? The control? It sure wasn’t in Tampa Bay.
Last year, the nine regular defensive linemen on the Buccaneers came out to an average weight of 278.6 pounds. With the additions that the Buccaneers have made this offseason through the draft and free agency, the nine biggest defensive linemen on the team now come out to an average of 300.6 pounds. That’s over 20 pounds more per player of pure 100 percent, Grade A, Angus, never frozen beef at each spot on the defensive line when it comes to regular snaps. That should make (literally) a massive difference.
Here’s how seven of those nine scheduled contributors, four of which are new, performed in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
You can take PFF grades with a grain of salt, if you choose, and if you throw in the fact that Vita Vea was PFF’s fourth-best interior run defender in the country in college football last year, you can see the trend of emphasis on the offseason wasn’t even getting that sack total up as much as it was trying to put this defense in better situations, as a whole, and hoping that controlling the line of scrimmage with size and strength will elevate every other level of the defense by default.
On the next page well look at some areas in which the Buccaneers did not have control of the defensive line in 2017, and how the new pieces around them should improve those results.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.