FAB 4. Duffner’s Relationship Skills Could Pay Off For Bucs D
I usually review the previous week’s Bucs game film in this spot, but with the change of defensive coordinators this week, I’ve devoted Fab 4 to give you some extra insight into Mark Duffner, the team’s linebackers coach and new play-caller on defense.
Communication always seemed like a problem when former Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s defense faltered, which was quite regular over the 37 games in which Smith presided over the unit. The Bucs were 16-21 with Smith running the show on defense, and allowed 400 yards of total yards or more in 20 of those 37 games.
Smith was fired on Monday after the Bucs’ 34-29 loss at Atlanta and replaced by Duffner, who will be charged with getting Tampa Bay out of the NFL cellar in terms of scoring defense (34.6 avg.) and passing defense (355.8 avg.). The Bucs rank 31st in the league in total defense (440 avg.).
Despite the communication issues, Smith always called plays from the press box and it seemed like there was a disconnect as a result. Sometimes coordinators thrive with a bird’s eye view of the field. That has been the case on the offensive side of the ball with Todd Monken, but the defense just wasn’t successful with Smith being upstairs.
“Sometimes the best seat in the house can be upstairs,” said Duffner, who will be calling plays from the sideline where he has been the last three years while coaching the linebackers. “Sometimes you feel like you are away from where the real action is up there because you are somewhat secluded. You have to look at what the scenario is each and every time and decide where you can be most effective. In our current situation I think it will be more effective for me on the sideline.”
Being close to the action and being able to talk to his players directly and look them in the eye could yield dividends for Duffner, who is lauded as a players coach.
“Anything you’re involved with, I think it’s all much better for everybody involved if you show care,” Duffner said. “If your players know that you care about them, I think they’re going to respond in a positive way. They know if it’s genuine or not. I love what I’m doing. You get a chance to see people in a lot of different scenarios where you can assist them in terms of whether it’s off the field or on the field in terms of interaction with them and really getting to know them.”
Duffner, who was PewterReport.com’s Assistant Coach of the Year last season, is a tireless worker in the offseason during the Bucs’ scouting process. No other Tampa Bay coach attends more pro days than Duffner, who doesn’t just focus on linebackers in the scouting process. Duffner was on the field during the defensive line drills at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine scouting those players in addition to the linebackers.
“He puts in a lot of time,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. “He puts a lot of time in free agency – getting to know guys, trying to recruit guys. At the Combine, Duff’s one of those coaches that if there are 40 linebackers at the Combine, he’s meeting with every one of them and comes away with a relationship with him. It’s always amazing, when it comes down to signing undrafted guys, how many times that’s made a difference.”
Bucs linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who was drafted in the third round in 2017, remembers meeting Duffner prior to the draft.
“I met him at the Combine, but he just kept asking about the horses,” Beckwith said. “That was his thing, he just kept asking about horses. He learned that I mess around with horses. I’ve got a barn and like four stables and some land. I’ve had them all of my life. I have four horses. He was like, ‘I rode a horse one time,’ and he was talking about the one time he rode them and his experience with that. He just kept asking different questions about them, just really picking my brain about them. I kept wondering, why is he asking me about horses? Low and behold, he became my coach.
“I didn’t have a meeting or anything with Tampa at the Combine and stuff. I came on a visit here and got a chance to talk to Coach Duff some more. We went out to dinner and he hasn’t changed since. Who he was at dinner before I came here is the same man I see when I go in that meeting room or come in the building. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve been able to work with – just his personality and how hard he works. He works very hard on making sure we’re as prepared as we can be. That’s just how he is. He’s a very caring person. He wants the best for us.”
As a sixth-round pick in 2016, linebacker Devante Bond was the first linebacker to be drafted in Duffner’s first year in Tampa Bay. He recalled how Duffner stood out to him in the pre-draft process.
“I remember I got a call when I was training down in Miami, and he was one of the coaches that called me,” Bond said. “I think there were two coaches that called that year but he was one of them. We talked for a while and then when I got to the Combine and we talked some more, and I had a meeting with the whole organization and then I saw him at my pro day at OU, too. He was everywhere.
“When I first talked to him he asked me about a tight end that like blew me up and he was like, ‘You handled all the tight ends in college but there was one that got to you.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? There wasn’t anyone who got to me.’ I had to realize there was this one guy at Baylor (LaQuan McGowan), he was like a big 400-pound guy, I can’t remember his name. I’ll never forget that conversation. After that we just talked about me as a person, my family and whatnot. He definitely cares. He cares about you as a person. Not just in the building, but what’s going on outside of the building. It’s not just numbers and X’s and O’s, it’s you as a man and a person so you definitely appreciate that.”
The linebackers feed off Duffner’s energy, which is quite remarkable given the fact that he is a spry 65-year old.
“Duff is just a big energy guy,” Bond said. “I have no clue [how he keeps up with us at his age.] I hope I’m like that when I’m 65, that’s all I’m going to say.
“He believes in energy and everybody coming together – we’re all one unit, one big dynamite. That’s the big difference I notice with Duff. They’re different people – Mike had his way of doing it, and all the coaches have their own way of doing different things – but Duff’s definitely a high-energy guy.”
The Bucs are counting on Duffner’s energy in practice and on the sidelines to get more out of Tampa Bay’s defensive players. And as the other Bucs defenders come to know him as the linebackers do, they’ll want to run through a brick wall for him, too.
“Everybody that has a relationship with Duff, it makes them want to play that much harder for a person,” Bond said. “Even with your teammates, when you’re doing stuff outside of football, it’s not just football, you want to go just that much harder for that person.”
Rookie linebacker Jack Cichy, who was Tampa Bay’s sixth-round pick this year, also formed a bond with Duffner before the draft and was impressed with his comprehensive approach.
“He definitely takes an interest in the lives of his players both in the facility and outside of the facility and that’s something that’s really invaluable, I think, just because of how much it means to the players,” Cichy said. “You don’t have a problem playing for a guy like that when you know he’s behind you and that he thoroughly cares for you. It makes it easy to play for a guy like that. He cares about Jack Cichy, number 48, just as much as he cares about Jack Cichy, the guy from Wisconsin.”
Just because Duffner is a caring guy doesn’t mean that he’s a big softie. Duffner has been known to really get on his players and demand accountability. That would be a welcomed change in Tampa Bay on the defensive side of the ball, and his presence on the sideline should help.
“I believe our approach has always been we play defense as aggressively as we possibly can,” Duffner said. “That doesn’t define meaning necessarily all blitz or pressure. That means that you play hard, that you play physical, you play smart – all those words kind of go into that word, ‘aggressive’. You can play aggressive coverage and be in zone defense. You can play aggressive run defense and not be in a pressure situation, so I think aggressive and physical is what we’ve got to be on defense. Defense has no room for being soft.”