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With Tampa Bay’s defense falling from the No. 1-ranked unit in the league last season to 20th overall through four regular season games in 2006, the blame game is in full swing.
But no one is quite sure whom to blame for the defense’s poor start. This is, after all, unfamiliar territory for the Bucs defense, which had finished nine straight seasons ranked in the top 10 heading into 2006.
Some say Tampa Bay’s defense, which lost only one starter – safety Dexter Jackson – isn’t receiving good enough play from certain players. Others point to the fact that the Bucs lost two key assistant coaches – Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin – and replaced them with unproven coaches at the NFL level in Jethro Franklin and Greg Burns, respectively.
For the most part, the Bucs coaches and players kept the finger-pointing in-house, more specifically, in meeting rooms, which made it difficult to get answers to this pressing question through the first four weeks of the season.
But this week things changed a bit. Although most Bucs players, coaches and officials did not want to go into details on the record regarding the defense’s woes, some of them were willing to shed some light on the subject.
Franklin and Burns are unproven at the NFL level, but the fact that Kiffin gave them his endorsement carries a lot of weight around One Buc Place. And to a man, the Bucs coaches and players Pewter Report talked to this week defended the new defensive coaches. When asked about the possible link between the new assistant coaches and Tampa Bay’s poor play on defense, one Bucs official laughed and said, “The coaches? You’ve got to be kidding.”
One of the coaches that was willing to speak on the record with Pewter Report was linebackers coach Joe Barry, who went out of his way to defend Franklin and Burns, both of whom he can relate to.
In 2001, Barry and then defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin were in the same position as Franklin and Burns are now. Barry and Tomlin were hired by the Bucs that year and charged with the difficult task of filling the vacancies left by linebackers coach Lovie Smith and defensive backs coach Herm Edwards, both of whom left Tampa Bay for promotions elsewhere.
Tampa Bay’s defense struggled out of the gate that year, and although it managed to finish the season ranked 6th overall, it ranked 12th against the run, which at the time was the lowest ranking the Bucs had in that department since 1996.
People naturally questioned the credentials brought to the Bucs defense by Barry and Tomlin, but according to Barry, both coaches used that criticism, and some good advice, to their advantage. And now Barry’s mission is to convey that message to Franklin and Burns.
“Mike [Tomlin] and I got kind of pissed off, and I think that’s what you kind of have to do,” Barry recalled. ‘I mean, people were saying these things about us and they weren’t true. I think it naturally makes you coach a little bit harder. I’ve done the same thing with Jethro and Greg as Rod Marinelli did with me and Mike T. I put my arm around those guys and said, ‘Listen. It is not something you two guys are doing. You’re more than qualified to be where you are at. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. We’re just not doing things correctly as a unit right now.’ Of course that stems from the coaches, but that’s not on Jethro and Greg. That’s on all of us – Monte, me, Jethro, Greg – it’s on all of us as a coaching staff to get our players doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
While Tampa Bay’s entire defensive coaching staff is willing to take responsibility for this unit uncharacteristically missing tackles and getting gashed for big plays, many within the organization feel the players need to step up and be more accountable, and more importantly, play better.
“Somebody needs to pick up a stat sheet and read it,” said one Bucs official. “You’ll see where the production is and isn’t.”
The stat sheet is indeed disturbing on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Ronde Barber leads the team in tackles. Tampa Bay’s run defense is ranked 30th in the league, and the defense has notched seven sacks and just one interception through four regular season games.
But in Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 defensive scheme, most of its successes or failures start up front with the defensive line, and that’s where the finger was pointed more often than not this week.
While this unit can play better as a whole, under tackle Anthony McFarland is not playing well enough for this unit to stop the run or get to the opposing team’s quarterback on a consistent basis. After taking a closer look at film and the stats sheet, one will find that many of the sentiments shared by Pewter Report publisher Scott Reynolds in his most recent SR’s Fab Five column are echoed at One Buc Place. Pardon the pun, but Reynolds wasn’t the only one at One Buccaneer Place that was picking on “Booger” this week.
A 1999 first-round pick out of LSU, McFarland was held without a tackle in New Orleans and has just eight takedowns through four games this season. He ranks dead last in tackles recorded by Tampa Bay’s starting defensive linemen, and McFarland’s backup, Ellis Wyms, has one less tackle (7) than the guy starting in front of him.
Even more disturbing, McFarland hasn’t recorded a solo tackle in three games, and he’s notched just one sack in Tampa Bay’s past 19 games (including post-season).
While they don’t expect him to be Warren Sapp, the Bucs do expect more production from McFarland, whose $4.5 million base salary makes him the second-highest paid player on the team even after general manager Bruce Allen stripped McFarland’s contract of $1.5 million in incentives this offseason.
And before you attribute McFarland’s poor play to the loss of Marinelli and the addition of Franklin, consider this.
“He has one sack in his last 19 games and 20 sacks in eight seasons, so he didn’t really have one hell of a year or career for Rod Marinelli, either,” said one Bucs official. “That’s the engine that needs to drive the defense.”
Of course, McFarland isn’t the only player to criticize for underperforming this season.
You can throw Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips into the fire. While he’s notched 32 tackles, which ranks third on the defense, Phillips has missed 20-plus tackles through four games, which was the main reason why he was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of Kalvin Pearson during last Sunday’s game in New Orleans. Pearson may get more playing time against Cincinnati.
Like McFarland, Phillips has not shown much playmaking ability during his five-year career. In fact, Phillips has recorded just two interceptions since entering the league in 2002.
While Phillips’ $1.35 million base salary appears to be affordable, some within the Bucs organization do not believe Phillips is a starting-caliber safety in the NFL and is a career backup at best.
The problem right now for the Bucs is their backup defensive tackles and safeties aren’t good enough to come in and make a big difference for the defense, which means it could continue to struggle unless McFarland and Phillips find a way to play better.
Three positions – under tackle, weak side linebacker and strong safety – are the keys to the Tampa 2 defense, and the Bucs currently are failing in two of those departments.
So, if you’re pointing at Franklin and Burns as the two reasons why Tampa Bay’s defense is struggling, you’re pointing the finger in the wrong direction.
“We’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Barry said of the defense as a whole. “We’re not doing our jobs and we’re not being on the details at our positions. For us to be successful, we’ve all got to have faith in the other 10 players around each other. ‘He’s going to do his job, and I’m going to be on my job. And when I’m in position to make a play, I’m going to do it.’ It’s our jobs as coaches to keep preaching that, and it’s the players’ jobs to execute. (As a player,) you've have got to have faith, and you’ve got to do your freaking job.”