FAB 2. Should The Bucs Defense Switch To A 3-4 Scheme?

Big changes are on the horizon in Tampa Bay. It’s inevitable after one of the most disappointing Buccaneers seasons in recent memory – a season that began with high expectations and an expected playoff berth.

Tampa Bay will finish 4-12 or possibly 5-11 with a home upset over playoff-bound New Orleans. Does it really matter if the Bucs are 5-11 instead of 4-12, other than securing a higher draft pick in April as this team has been out of playoff contention since October?

Bucs DE Will Gholston and LBs Kendell Beckwith and Lavonte David - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DE Will Gholston and LBs Kendell Beckwith and Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Don’t be fooled into believing that after five straight losses and a possible season-ending victory on Sunday that an upset over the Saints can be something the Bucs can build on next year. The players will fight hard and give the maximum effort they have rightfully shown over the last five close losses, which were each decided by a touchdown or less. But there are going to be so many changes this offseason, especially to the coaching staff and a good chunk of the roster that a good deal of the players and coaches that comprise the 2018 Bucs roster wouldn’t have played or coached against New Orleans on New Year’s Eve.

Dirk Koetter could be fired next week unless the Glazers don’t have a replacement lined up. But whether or not Koetter stays or goes, there will be a new defensive coordinator and some new position coaches next year in Tampa Bay.

Koetter’s offense has bogged down too many times in the red zone and his game management from timeout usage to efficient use of the game clock hasn’t gotten much better over the last two years. Plus, his decision to turn to Doug Martin (six carries for seven yards) over Peyton Barber (13 carries for 51 yards) in the second half against Carolina, and his continued belief in Martin, who hasn’t rushed for 100 yards in over two years, seems like a fireable offense to me.

I shouldn’t even have to explain why defensive coordinator Mike Smith should get fired. Exhibit A was the game plan against Case Keenum and Minnesota in a Week 2 loss. Exhibit Z was failing to stop Carolina’s game-winning touchdown drive last week.

Yes, we are on Exhibit Z by now when it comes to this defense.

Despite its warts – an average offensive line, the lack of a dynamic running back and a talented quarterback that still has a ways to go in developing – the offense is the strength of the Buccaneers moving forward. The defense is the team’s weakness due to a defensive line that needs to be completely overhauled and a secondary that needs to be revamped.

All this has me wondering if it’s time for a radical change in Tampa Bay – a change to a 3-4 defensive scheme to take advantage of the linebackers, which is clearly the best unit on this team.

3-4 Under graphic by: Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report
3-4 Under graphic by: Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

The Bucs have been a base 4-3 team for decades under Floyd Peters, Monte Kiffin, Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Mike Smith. Yet Tampa Bay has its roots in the 3-4 as Bucs Ring of Honor head coach John McKay fielded a 3-4 defense at the franchise’s beginning in 1976 and nearly made the Super Bowl in 1979 due to a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league. The last time Tampa Bay deployed a 3-4 scheme as its base defense was under Ray Perkins in 1990 when Fred Bruney was the defensive coordinator.

It might be time for a change to best use the talents of weakside linebacker Lavonte David, who is a talented, but underutilized blitzer, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, and strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who is coming off an impressive rookie year. At just 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, Noah Spence might be better suited to be a 3-4 rush linebacker than a defensive end. Spence could play opposite Beckwith with David and Alexander inside.

The Bucs’ lack of pass rush has doomed the defense this year, as Tampa Bay has a pathetic 20 sacks, which is dead last in the NFL. The Bucs defense must find a way to get to the quarterback next year and a 3-4 defense might be the best and quickest way to accomplish that.

The four linebackers in a 3-4 Under scheme consist of a weakside outside linebacker, a strongside outside linebacker and two linebackers in the middle – a Mike and a Jack – behind three defensive linemen – a nose tackle, a strongside defensive end playing the five-technique and a weakside defensive tackle playing the three-technique.

Alexander has proved to be an effective pass rusher with three sacks in each of his first two seasons this year, but was rarely asked to blitz the A gap this year. With 18 career sacks, David is an even more accomplished blitzer, but Smith rarely deployed him in that capacity this year after producing five sacks in 2017. David had a career-high seven sacks in 2013.

Bucs LB Lavonte David - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

With Tampa Bay’s pass rush struggling all year, the Bucs certainly could have used the combined eight sacks that David and Alexander produced last year, but Smith rarely dialed up blitzes. The only linebackers that have recorded sacks were Beckwith and Adarius Glanton, who had a sack-fumble of New England quarterback Tom Brady.

From a personnel standpoint, finding three defensive linemen to start in a 3-4 might be easier than finding four to start in a 4-3 defense in Tampa Bay next year. Let’s take a look at who is currently on the roster.

Regardless of who comes in as a head coach and defensive coordinator to replace Koetter and Smith, the Bucs need to part ways with defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Chris Baker. Both are under contract next year.

Ayers will be 33 and has a $1 million roster bonus due this offseason, in addition to a $5 million base salary, and he’s not worth it. Ayers’ pass rushing ability has dropped off significantly as he only has two sacks, which is his lowest output in five years, and two forced fumbles this year.

Baker, who was signed as a free agent this year because Smith wanted more size up front and bigger defensive tackles, was paid $6 million to record 28 tackles and just half a sack. Baker, who will be 31 in 2018, has been lazy and unproductive in Tampa Bay and is scheduled to earn $4.875 million in each of the last two years on his contract.

Thankfully, the Bucs can cut both Ayers and Baker without any dead salary cap money.

Will Clarke, a 26-year old defensive end with 13 tackles and three sacks, Sealver Siliga, a reserve run-stuffing nose tackle with five tackles, and Clinton McDonald, a 30-year old defensive tackle with 19 tackles and four sacks, are both unrestricted free agents next year. Whether Clarke and McDonald come back or not will be determined by whether the Bucs stay in a 4-3 scheme, which suits their playing style, or move to a 3-4, which doesn’t. At 345 pounds, Siliga has the size to be a 3-4 nose tackle, but lacks the talent to be anything more than a reserve if he’s re-signed.

Ryan Russell, who has just two sacks over the last two years, is a restricted free agent, but has done little to deserve a tender offer from Tampa Bay. That’s half of the defensive linemen on the current roster that will likely be gone in 2018.

Bucs DE Noah Spence - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DE Noah Spence – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Pat O’Connor, a reserve defensive end who has done little in limited snaps, is under contract in 2018, but may not be a good scheme fit for a 3-4. Aside from O’Connor, Channing Ward is an exclusive rights free agent that has done little to get excited about in his two years with the team.

If we count Spence as a linebacker, the only holdovers on the Bucs defensive line in 2018 could be Will Gholston Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and 330-ppound defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who spent the year on injured reserve and might be a good fit as either a nose tackle in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.

Gholston and McCoy could also be fits in a 3-4 Under scheme like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Rams deploy. Gholston has the size and strength to be a classic strongside 5-technique player. McCoy has stated his previous disdain for the 3-4 defense, but when the Bucs ran it earlier in the season in games against Buffalo among others, he was misused as a strongside defensive end or a nose tackle.

In a 3-4 Under scheme, McCoy would play the same position that Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward (12 sacks, two forced fumbles) and Aaron Donald (11 sacks, five forced fumbles) play, which is a weakside 3-technique end – albeit with two-gap responsibilities. The object in the 3-4 Under is the same as it is in a 4-3 under scheme – to get the three-technique defensive end the best look with a one-on-one against the guard on the weakside.

With McCoy and Gholston, the Bucs have two out of three defensive starters they need along the line, and Tu’ikolovatu and Siliga could battle for a reserve nose tackle spot behind a starting caliber player. In switching to a 3-4 scheme, the Bucs would need to get some bigger bodies along the defensive line, but instead of having to replace two starters at nose tackle and defensive end, Tampa Bay would just need to find one in the middle.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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Pete Wood

I don’t want to fire Koetter or Smith. The only change I want is for Koetter to turn over play calling to OC.
I do not think Gruden is the answer.
Okay. I’m waiting for the angry villagers to storm my house with pitchforks and torches.

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Darrell

Who are the stick carriers? I wish y’all at PR would have a general consensus about this subject. Some say he’s definitely gone and now maybe not. I was hoping you had more insight than the rest of us lol.

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tpeluso

My feeling all along has been exactly what you said here and what the Pewter Poll should be changed to reflect: The ONLY reason to fire Koetter is if Gruden is already boxed, wrapped, tied up with a bow and waiting for us under the Christmas tree the day after Black Monday. If Gruden decides not to leave ESPN or chooses another team for his comeback, then Koetter should stay with appropriate changes (turning over play-calling, a new DC that runs a 3-4 that fits our defensive talent better).

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Ken Grant

Our personnel does NOT fit a 34 front. Spence on the edge is about it. The rest are pure 43 guys. Awful idea.

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BucWild02

I disagree with you Mr. Ken Grant. The Bucs have beef up front in McCoy, Baker, and Golston. Plus they will get Stevie Touiloulou(sp?) back next year and have Siliga currently. At LB, the Bucs have David, Alexander, Beckwith, and Spence. Thats a pretty good 3-4 lineup. Bucs could bring pressure from all over and finally(!!!) get their sack numbers up.

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surferdudes

Scott you contradict yourself a lot. You mention not having Martin for the G.B. game, yet admit he’s not very good anymore. Like having him that game would’ve made a difference. You want Smith, and Hayes gone, but want to keep Licht who hasn’t given them any help up front. Our D line sucks, that’s on Licht, he hasn’t paid much attention to that unit. You’re expecting Smith to get blood from a stone. I’m for cleaning house. Licht’s record speaks for itself, he’s been out drafted by all of our South counter parts the last four years. Koetter won’t… Read more »

Horse

Surderdudes, what is your real condifence percentages Gruden will actually Coach in Tampa? I’m about 10%. Even Scott has pulled back based on this weeks FAB 5.

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chipbuc

Scott the problem with keeping Koetter and firing Smith is, i don’t think any good defensive coordinator is coming in for maybe a one year stint if the bucs have another bad year. If your going to change the D coordinator i think you almost have to bring in a new head coach to bring in a quality coach to run the D.

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macabee

Sometimes you should just say nothing. The smart thing to do is to wait until Monday. However, perhaps inviting the wrath of my friends surferdudes and matador, I will say again, I will have no objection if Koetter is given another year as HC, but not if he refuses to change the DC. I have no expertise selecting DCs, but I can read. The consensus is that John Fox will not return as HC in Chicago. Fox has had a top 10 defense at Carolina, Denver, and Chicago. And he has expertise coaching the 3-4 scheme. Fox would be my… Read more »

Horse

Macabee; right with you.

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MudManVA

Amen mac

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MudManVA

Thanks Scott for the enjoyable read once again. I do think the Bucs best option is a 3-4 with all its talent at LB and Spence. The McCoy could be a beast at DE. I share the same thoughts as my PR readers above that we hoped you had insight into the coaching situation. You have been pretty hard in your stance that koetter would be fired & Gruden would be back up until this article. NOW you are backpedaling like our soft corners!!! LoL I would like stability at TB but I don’t think our current staff is the… Read more »

Horse

Koetter should stay only if he fires his DC and much of that coaching staff. I’m for changing to a 3-4, but I don’t see Spence in either the 3-4 or 4-3. He’s too small to play the 4-3 and not talented enough to play the 3-4 as he’s not that quick when it comes to reacting. Golhston is still aproblem whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3; he’s really just a rotational guy at best. We need two DE’s regardless of a 3-4 or a 4-3 in the very early rounds regardless of who we might sign in Free… Read more »

nitey

I’ve been in Koetter’s corner mostly up to the last game. He either needs to be Head Coach and give up play calling or resign himself to being a OC somewhere else. It’s apparent he can’t do both. I also believe if Koetter is retained it’s apparent his play calling hasn’t put his offensive players in their best position to succeed. His use of Jackson and Martin this season is more than enough evidence that he just didn’t do well enough. He speculated at his season ending conference last year that maybe he should give up play calling and if… Read more »

devasher

12/24/2017 – Scott Reynold’s 2-Point Conversion “STATEMENT 1: Gruden Returns In 2018 Notice how this is under the “Big Statement” section rather than under the “Bold Prediction” department? That’s right. This is a statement, not a prediction anymore.” QUESTION 2: What Happened Before Halftime With Koetter’s Clock Management? But the biggest factor in my opinion came in the first half when the Bucs had to settle for three field goals in the red zone. Yes, Koetter did stink in the red zone, and that’s been a recurring theme over the past two years, but in 2017 especially as the Bucs’… Read more »

JustaBuc

Dude, you beat me to quoting those exact quotes myself. Scott’s been riding Gruden’s jock all year and I hardly find it a coincidence that he SUDDENLY walks back on all of it when it’s heard that Koetter is coming back.

I wish I could be in the room myself if Reynolds and Koetter meets up. Scott gambled and lost big like I thought he would when you don’t put yourself on the team’s pulse and instead make conjectures. Learn your lesson Scott! Sources!

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stlbucsfan

Definitely disagree that there aren’t other candidates that can do a better job. I’ve mentioned Harbaugh on several occasions and think he’s 10x the coach Dirk has shown himself to be. I use the same logic with my Bucs as I did with my Gators. Why keep an offensive minded HC when the offense is trash/unproductive. With all the tools we have I’m sure Jeff Fisher could stumble through the season with similar results. You don’t fire a coach bc “well Im not sure what else we can get” you fire a coach bc he is not doing his job.… Read more »

Ken Grant

There is some truth here. Fab1 feels like some serious backtracking from the 2-pt. conversion piece.

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devasher

Scott could have just admitted he received information that he was wrong and stood on his previous critiques about Koetter, many of which are very reasonable. Scott could have pointed to things he was hopeful Koetter would improve on and how to get there, he could have discussed how the OC/DC’s of New England were great candidates that he still stood by but the Glazers were rumored to be interested in one more year with the current regime. But instead Scott spun like a top only 5 days after guaranteeing that Koetter would be fired, nary a mention about why… Read more »

JustaBuc

Amen yet again. Couldn’t have said it better myself devasher.

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Ken Grant

Gotta say Fab1 gives some excuses for Koetter that I don’t think hold up. Was the team hit with a sizeable amount of misfortune? Sure. Did Koetter make the appropriate adjustments both throughout the season and during games. Not ever close. We have watched conservative decision making, erratic play-calling, and stubborn gameplan approaches doom this team to loss after loss. Remember when in 2016 the defense “turned the page” and was allowed to speak up and communicate with each other and adjust the scheme to their strengths? Anyone wanna tell me why 2017 felt like deja vu only this time… Read more »

FilmBuc

Ok. Firing Smith for a guy like Horton – who has NEVER had an elte defense – makes zero sense. Smith has had better success in the past than Horton at almost every stop. Scott made a lot of excuses as to why Horton didn’t succeed in Tennese and why he was fired after one year stints TWICE – but doesn’t afford the same level of excuse for Smith who not only was not given any aditional pass rushers this offseason, but lost the only sem–mediocre ones he had to injury. I completely agree that Koetter should only be fired… Read more »

jongruden

I said from the start I did not think Koetter is head coach material I knew him well from his days here at ASU, Gruden has a resume which includes 3 division champs and a sb winner, I know he was successful in Oakland don’t know the exact record. This is not even a debate how could it be when comparing Gruden to a “hasn’t done squat coach” in Koetter? Gruden does well with vets and I would consider by next yr we have vets at key positions like Qb, WR, DT, LB O line etc he would bring a… Read more »

Horse

It’s been awhile Jon Gruden; now that we know he isn’t coming, hope to hear from you again. Where have you been?

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cgmaster27

This one is tough for me as I do like Koetter and I think Jameis can benefit from constant stability, but as some stated above, there would have to be other things in place. Mike Smith will clearly have to go and I really like Mac’s idea of getting John fox in there. Great idea Mac! Koetter would also need to give up play calling. His play calling in the red zone has been awful for the last two years for sure. That was he can focus on improving things more on his end of the time management side of… Read more »

drdneast

You mentioned three coaches the team has quit on since firing Gruden but you left out one very important coach in theat equation. Jon Gruden himself. As I recall, after Monte Kiffen announced he wouldn’t return to the Bucs the next year, the Bucs, who were 9-3 at the time, rolled over and played dead by losing four straight, including the final game against probably one of the worst QB’s ever in the NFL and a third or fourth string RB. The Bucs defense has been the overwhelming reason the Bucs have lost this year and Koetter has had no… Read more »

scubog

We always seem to agree on football related topics. If not Jon Gruden (mostly because of the “juice” his hiring would inject in the fandom), keeping Koetter and bringing in an entirely new defensive staff and maybe even some new special teams coaches is probably the right direction. I too don’t think Donovan Smith is anywhere near as bad as he’s portrayed; although he did struggle a bit against the Panthers. The O-line’s problem is in the middle.

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e

Nice article Scott… I don’t envy the position that the Glazers are in on Monday. I’m a fan of consistency, but what other names could be out there by weeks end? There always seems to be a big surprise at the end of every coaching carousel. As far as the 3-4 change… I could see that turning into a lost season of acclamation for the players on that, even though it makes sense on paper. Happy New Year’s to you, Mark, Trevor and staff and keep up the great work in ’18! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes… Read more »

surferdudes

Horse my feeling on Gruden is about 90% he returns to coach the Bucs. I don’t see him wanting to leave for another city with his son entering his senior year. This is his home. I think he’s had his fill of broadcasting, and at his age, it’s now or never. The guy is a competitor, it’s his passion, said it himself a few weeks ago. Gruden has never said it publicly, but he’s heard it forever, he won with Dungy’s team. I think that statement sticks in his craw. Should he take over a 4-12 Buc team to winning… Read more »

macabee

Come on PR report the latest news. The Glazers have named Dirk Koetter as the 2018 Bucs head coach.

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martinii

Mac, I haven’t posted anything because I am reading this late in the day and don’t want to bust anybody’s bubble.

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Jake from state farm

Stupid idea. Make Gerald McCoy a 2 gap defender? His strength is his get off and penetration skills. Making him a two-gap defender negates that. That’s just not using players to their strength. Hense, the reason why we are where we are always.

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buddah

Finally a balanced assessment. Good analysis. I prefer Koetter but would root for Gruden. All teams in today’s NFL are flawed. jo

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GoldsonAges

Thank God Koetter is coming back. Maybe PR can hit on a 2 point conversion because ever since they started up the Gruden hype the articles have been unreadable trash, coming from a life long PR fan

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