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?
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.
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.
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.
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.