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Tampa Bay's defense is known for its Cover 2 zone concept, which has been renamed the Tampa 2 because of the Bucs' fondness for the scheme. But while the Bucs defense has finished 10 of the past 11 seasons ranked in the top 10 in the NFL, that success hasn't stopped defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin from evolving.
Last year, the Bucs, who have traditionally played in a 4-3 defensive scheme, toyed with 3-4 defense in the offseason. There were several reasons behind it.
Tampa Bay, which had ranked 17th overall in total defense the previous year, wanted get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and make good use of some of the defense's personnel, particularly then-rookie linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, who were often times used as rush ends in the instances where the Bucs used the 3-4 scheme during the offseason and preseason.
But with the exception of a few plays during the 2007 regular season, Tampa Bay's defense stuck with what had worked best for the Bucs, which was the traditional 4-3 alignment.
The Bucs were seriously considering using more 3-4 alignments, but their defensive line was unsettled so late into the preseason and neither Black nor Hayward was experienced enough from a pass-rushing standpoint.
As a result, Bucs finished the 2007 season ranked No. 2 overall in total defense, and accomplished that feat without relying on the 3-4 alignment.
Although the media hasn't been permitted by the Bucs to watch more than one practice per week this offseason, it appears as though the Bucs have all but given up the 3-4 experiment.
But that doesn't mean Kiffin hasn't cooked up some new wrinkles for his defense this year.
In fact, he and his staff have, and what the Bucs defense has been experimenting more with this year likely will make some fans happy as many of them were calling for more of it last year.
The NFL is a copycat league. Many teams have implemented the Cover 2 system after watching Kiffin field such successful defenses in his tenure with Tampa Bay.
After watching the New York Giants win last year's Super Bowl, Kiffin might be borrowing a page or two from the Giants defense, which recorded a league-high 53 sacks last season.
What pages? Well, ones that feature blitzes, specifically. The Giants might have been the best blitzing defense in the NFL last year, notching 12.5 of their 53 sacks with linebackers and defensive backs (Mathias Kiwanuka, who had 4.5 sacks in 2007, played defensive end as well as some linebacker for the Giants).
The Bucs registered 33 sacks last year, which was 20 less than what the Giants were able to record in 16 regular season games. Tampa Bay knows it must get after the quarterback on a more consistent basis in order to dominate and generate more turnovers this year, which might help explain why the team is toying with a variety of blitz packages.
"Every year this time of year you're trying different things," said Bucs linebackers coach Gus Bradley. "Everybody is evaluating what they did good and what they did bad last year. There were some areas we felt we had to improve on and blitzing is an area every year we need to look at. So many times offenses are changing and changing how they're picking up blitzes, so we're trying to come up with some creative ways to get after the quarterback."
The Bucs aren't known as a big blitzing team, evidenced by the fact that Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber and safety Jermaine Phillips were the only Bucs non-defensive linemen to notch sacks last season. They each recorded one.
The Cover 2 scheme is built to get after the quarterback with the four defensive linemen, and when successful, it often times can lead to errant throws by the quarterback, which in turn can translate into interceptions.
While Tampa Bay hopes defensive ends Gaines Adams and Greg White can build on their impressive debuts with the Bucs, where they combined for 14 sacks in the regular season, the team could lean on some of its other personnel, particularly the linebackers, to help pressure the quarterback in 2008.
"Ideally, every play we'd like to do is get four great, mean rushers and have them rush the passer and get pressure and we can sit back and play our Tampa 2. That would be the ideal world," said Bradley. "This day and age, in the free agency era, we have to come out and try to be creative in some of the things that we do. A lot of times it's just a tweak here and there of what we're doing. Hopefully it gives the illusion we're doing something different to the offense."
The media hasn't been able to watch all of Tampa Bay's organized team activities. In fact, it's only been a few, so Pewter Report isn't exactly sure what type of blitz packages the Bucs are experimenting with or how often they're running them. Even if we did know we couldn't share the exact details due to NFL rules pertaining to press credentials.
What Pewter Report can tell fans is that we've learned the Bucs, particularly their linebackers, have been studying quite a bit of film from other blitzing teams. In fact, the Bucs have gone as far as studying specific players that have mastered the blitzing technique.
One of the players some of the Bucs players and coaches have been studying and watching on film this offseason is current New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who has notched a whopping 30.5 sacks over his 14-year career.
Barber has 21 career sacks, which is an NFL record for a cornerback, but outside of his success the Bucs have had very little in terms of blitzing. And as the Bucs have learned before, a failed blitz attempt can leave the team's secondary vulnerable.
"I think that's one of the things we've talked about," Bradley said. "When you bring pressure one of the reasons why we're successful is we don't just count on the pressure getting there. We also count on having great coverage. That goes back to Rah [defensive backs coach Raheem Morris], and the guys covering in the backfield and in the secondary and stuff like that. We really emphasize coverage and making sure we fit up the routes as well."
As much as Kiffin wanted to see his defense raise more havoc in the offensive backfield on passing plays last year, he wasn't willing to blitz more often because the Bucs secondary was playing quite well.
Tampa Bay finished the 2007 season ranked No. 1 overall vs. the pass, but the Bucs notched just 16 interceptions, and part of that was due to the lack of turnover opportunities created by the pass rush.
To put that interception total in perspective, Tampa Bay notched 31 picks and 43 sacks en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.
The Bucs are in the process of determining whether they have the personnel to blitz more often this season. That includes the secondary, where the Bucs lost cornerback Brian Kelly to free agency, but have added free agent Eugene Wilson and first-round pick Aqib Talib.
If Tampa Bay's secondary can hold up in coverage, the Bucs might be more likely to blitz more in 2008. But as of right now, the team is just experimenting with the concept.
"We're toying with it right now," Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said of Tampa Bay blitzing more this offseason. "This is the time to experiment to see if you like things. We'll probably run a lot of it in preseason and if we like it we might keep it or you might see it again in OTAs next year."
The Bucs linebackers did not record a single sack last year, but two players from this group – Ruud and Cato June – could be the players that are called on to blitz the most should Tampa Bay decide to take this experiment out of the laboratory and execute it on the field in the regular season.
Ruud, a 2005 second-round draft pick, has actually blitzed quite well when the Bucs have used him in that manner. But most of those opportunities have come in the preseason.
Ruud, who led the Bucs defense in tackles last year with 169, has only notched one sack in the pros, which came in the 2007 preseason. But Ruud was a proven blitzer at Nebraska, where he notched eight sacks and added 29 quarterback pressures. He doesn't seem to mind the fact that Tampa Bay has been using more blitzes this offseason.
"I like it," Ruud said of blitzing. "Every opportunity I get to blitz I'm all for it because we don't really do it a lot and we're not really known for it. Any opportunity I get I try to take advantage of it."
Although he was a safety at Michigan, Bucs strongside linebacker Cato June was also an effective blitzer in college, where he notched six sacks. Like Ruud, June has one career sack in the NFL.
Bucs 10-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks has notched 13.5 career sacks and even had six sacks combined in the 2004-05 seasons, but he didn't record a sack last season. That was the first time since the 2001 season that Brooks, 35, didn't register a quarterback takedown.
So one should really be surprised if some of the Bucs' blitz packages were to take place in nickel situations when Ruud and June are on the field together.
"If we do have a guy that's a good blitzer like a Barrett Ruud, and Derrick has been in the past with Cato June coming off the edge, it just aides to what we're doing more," said Bradley. "We want to use their strengths. We're trying to bring some more pressure because we do have some good blitzers on this team."
Even though their 3-4 experiment didn't really carry over into the 2007 regular season, the Bucs will tell you that the team still benefited from it, especially head coach Jon Gruden's offense.
That said, the Bucs should benefit from this year's blitzing experiment. It's just a matter of which side of the ball will benefit the most. Unfortunately, that answer probably won't come until the regular season starts in September.
"It definitely helps to toy with it or even put it on film in the preseason," said Ruud. "That's especially true if we're playing a team we know we're going to have to play again. Sometimes we cook up some exotic blitzes for teams to have to prepare for just to show them something. It's a lot of mind games, but it's also to see if it works and determine whether it's something we want to use come the regular season."
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