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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE 3-4 DEFENSE?
One of the more talked about topics during Tampa Bay's offseason was the Buccaneers' flirtation with the 3-4 defensive scheme.
Several factors played a role in Tampa Bay experimenting with the 3-4, including the Bucs' interest in improving their pass rush from a year ago and putting their best personnel on the field at once.
The Bucs felt there was a chance they could implement the 3-4 scheme as a complement to the Tampa 2 they're known for due to their new personnel, particularly rookie linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, who have some experience playing defensive end in their careers.
Both players flashed playmaking ability during Tampa Bay's rookie mini-camp in March. The Bucs felt there was a good chance the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Black and Hayward (6-0, 235) could play linebacker as well as rush ends in the 3-4 alignment. Both players spent a significant amount of time participating in pass rush drills throughout the offseason and in training camp.
Tampa Bay showcased the 3-4 scheme in training camp and a little bit in preseason, but it really hasn't come to fruition during the regular season, which has prompted several of our readers to inquire about the Bucs' level of commitment to featuring the 3-4 this season.
We brought those questions to defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and head coach Jon Gruden in an effort to provide Bucs fans with answers. The good news is they offered up explanations. The bad news is their answers may not be what some fans wanted to hear.
As of right now, it looks like the Bucs will not use the 3-4 scheme this season due to the fact that their defensive line was unsettled so late into the preseason and because neither Black nor Hayward has enough pass rush experience for Tampa Bay to be able to count on them at this point in their young careers.
"Probably not this season," Kiffin said when asked if the Bucs still planned to use the 3-4 defense at some point in 2007. "Our defensive line was so unsettled this year. We have some really good linebackers here in Hayward and Quincy so we were trying to get our four best linemen and the guys behind them to provide the pass rush. We've lost a lot of linemen here, so it's a whole different deal. You really have to commit to it if you're going to do it. That doesn't mean we never will, but this was a hard year to do it."
Gruden concurred with Kiffin's assessment, but suggested the team still reaped some benefits from experimenting with the 3-4 defense.
"We do have have a three-down, three-linebacker, little Redskin package we use in the base," said Gruden. "But at this point I don't believe it's going to happen. Quincy is in the shower right now with a hamstring [injury]. I don't believe right now that that is the direction that we're headed. I'm sure it helped the offense during the offseason and in training camp seeing the 3-4 and preparing for it. As we dabble and we see who is what we'll adjust accordingly. Right now it's probably a reach to say you'll see the 3-4 here."
Tampa Bay's defense is playing better this year than last season. The Bucs currently rank 8th overall in total defense and have notched 16 sacks through eight games, which puts them on pace to record 32 on the season, which would be six more than the Bucs compiled in the sack column in 2006.
While that sack total isn't what Bucs fans are used to seeing from Tampa Bay's defense, it's important to note that its front four is not made up of the same players it used to have during the Bucs' playoff and Super Bowl runs.
Defensive tackles Warren Sapp and defensive end Simeon Rice are no longer with Tampa Bay. Those players have combined for 217.5 sacks during their respective careers.
Tampa Bay's current defensive line is run in large part by a committee of players, none of which are playing near a Pro Bowl-level like Sapp and Rice did with the Bucs when they were in their prime.
Defensive ends Greg Spires and Kevin Carter are 33 and 34, respectively. While they have 33.5 and 99.5 career sacks, respectively, neither player is in his prime and is part of Tampa Bay's future plans.
Nose tackle Chris Hovan isn't usually counted on to provide a consistent pass rush as he spends the majority of his playing time fending off double teams. Under tackle Jovan Haye, who leads the team in sacks with four, might be an upgrade over Anthony McFarland, but he originally entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick.
Some of the other committee members include rookie defensive tackle Greg Peterson, who played collegiately at North Carolina Central, which is a Div. II school, defensive end Greg White, who played in the Arena League before joining Tampa Bay, defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, who is making the transition from linebacker to defensive end and has had a tough time staying healthy and first-round draft pick Gaines Adams, who has only played 30 percent of the snaps this season.
Not exactly the Dream Team. The inconsistent pass rush provided by Tampa Bay's front four this season has some wondering why the Bucs haven't opted to blitz more than they have.
While Ronde Barber still is the only cornerback in NFL history to have recorded 20 career interceptions and 20 career sacks, strong safety Jermaine Phillips is the only Bucs defender outside of the defensive linemen that has notched a sack this season. When the Bucs have blitzed, they haven't been consistent in executing those plays, which can leave the secondary vulnerable.
Tampa Bay's pass defense currently ranks second in the NFL, allowing just 173.1 yards per game through the air. Blitzing can be risky if you can't execute to perfection. While the Bucs design exotic blitz packages each week, they don't necessarily feel the need to use them if they believe the risk isn't worth the reward.
"Different protections have a lot to do with that and you have to take a look at how quickly the ball is coming out," Kiffin said of the decision-making process that goes into blitzing. "A lot of different scenarios go into it. Sometimes we blitz, sometimes we don't. You just have to pick and choose your spots. We're playing good coverage right now. Last time I checked we were second in the league in pass protection. Would you really want to change a whole lot?"
SPECIAL TEAMS WOES
Which position has been affected most by the rash of injuries the Bucs have suffered this season?
While the Bucs have lost three offensive starters – left tackle Luke Petitgout, running back Cadillac Williams and fullback Mike Alstott, their special teams have been decimated the most by injuries.
Tampa Bay's top six special teams tacklers from the 2006 season are currently not playing special teams for the Bucs. That includes their top two tacklers – cornerback Torrie Cox, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn ACL, and running back Earnest Graham, who is the Bucs' starting running back due to injuries sustained by Williams and Michael Pittman.
Several players the Bucs were counting on to play special teams have seen their seasons end due to injury, including Cox (ACL), rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli (leg), linebacker Antoine Cash (knee) and wide receiver Mark Jones (knee), who was averaging an impressive 28.6 yards per kickoff return before he sustained a torn patellar tendon against Detroit.
In addition, the Bucs have not been able to use defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) and linebacker Quincy Black (hamstring) due to their respective ailments, and several other injuries have forced players like Graham and fullback B.J. Askew off of special teams duties because they are now too valuable on offense.
With Tampa Bay's two best kickoff return specialists – Cox and Jones – out for the season, the Bucs are considering using RB Michael Bennett in that capacity, although he's never returned a kickoff in the NFL. As a result of those injuries, Tampa Bay's average starting field position is the 25-yard line, which ranks 23rd in the NFL.
To their credit, Tampa Bay's coverage teams have performed fairly well under the circumstances. The Bucs rank first in opponent kickoff return average, allowing just 17 yards per attempt through eight games this season.
But one can only wonder how many more injuries this unit can sustain before special teams coach Richard Bisaccia's group starts to fall apart. To his credit, Bisaccia has the special teams coverage units playing fairly well right now. The Bucs hope this unit can improve by getting a few injured players back for the second half of the season.
So what should people make of Tampa Bay's 4-4 start midway through the 2007 regular season?
Sure, the Bucs should be 6-2, but unfortunately found ways to lose their last two games to the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. While those two losses were disappointing, the Bucs' overall record probably isn't when you break down the first and second halves of their season.
Tampa Bay has played the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL (.579 opponents winning percentage) and has a league-leading 12 players on injured reserve, yet this Bucs team, which went 4-12 last year, has managed to get off to a respectable 4-4 start. In fact, the Bucs are one of five teams (out of 17) who have a .500 or better record whose first eight opponents are .500 or better.
The fact that the Bucs are just a half of a game behind the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South division is quite encouraging when you consider the fact that the Panthers had the fourth-easiest schedule through the first seven games of the year. Carolina also has the toughest remaining schedule of any NFC South team, including a showdown against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium in both teams' regular season finales.
Tampa Bay's defense has room for improvement from a pass rush and turnover standpoint, but it is still ranked eigth overall in the NFL and could improve with the return of cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) from their respective injuries.
Tampa Bay's offense produced just 20 touchdowns through 16 regular season games in 2006. At the midway point in the 2007 season, the Bucs already have 16 offensive touchdowns and currently rank 17th overall.
What is a little deceiving about Tampa Bay's offensive ranking is the fact that the Bucs actually rank 9th in the NFL and 3rd in the NFC in yards per play. The only two NFC teams that are better from this standpoint are Dallas and Green Bay. The Bucs offense could be even better from an overall ranking standpoint had it made better use of its opportunities, and had the ball more, period, against Indianapolis and Tennessee.
Now consider the fact that the Bucs have accomplished these offensive feats with their starting left tackle, Luke Petitgout (knee), and their top two running backs in Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle) sidelined for a significant amount of time and the Bucs' No. 3 wide receiver, Michael Clayton (ankle), and starting tight end Alex Smith (ankle) missing a few weeks due to injuries as well.
While the offense has plenty of room for improvement, head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden has done a pretty good job when considering all of the circumstances he's had to work with.
If Tampa Bay is going to make the playoffs and/or win its division, Gruden will have to do one of the best coaching jobs of his career.
The Bucs are banged up and running thin at several positions, but their remaining schedule is quite favorable. Tampa Bay's final eight opponents have a combined record of 21-37. Only two of those eight games – vs. Washington and Carolina – are against opponents with winning records, and both games will be played at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs also have a bye week after Sunday's game vs. the Arizona Cardinals.
Tampa Bay, which is 2-0 in its division, also controls its own destiny in terms of winning the NFC South title. Half of the Bucs' remaining games are against NFC South division rivals, and two of those contests are against the 1-6 Atlanta Falcons.
One thing Tampa Bay will have to do in order to make a playoff run is win its games in November and December. The Bucs were a tough team to beat in those two months under former head coach Tony Dungy. They compiled a 35-17 record in November and December under Dungy.
But under Gruden, Tampa Bay is just 20-24 in November and December. There's a good chance that the Bucs will not make the playoffs if they don't win their division as it looks like the NFC East and NFC North division could produce both Wild Card teams.
That said, the Bucs must get healthy and produce a winning record in November and December in order to win the NFC South division title for the third time since 2002 and the second time over the past three seasons.
The NFC is wide open and anything could happen once the playoffs start. But the Bucs must first make sure they capitalize on their favorable start and remaining schedule, and get in the post-season tournament.
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