FAB 4. The Real Reason Why Smith’s Defense Failed
Over the past two years we all heard former Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith stand up and tell the media in his press conferences that there were “communication issues” that allowed receivers to run free, wide open against Tampa Bay’s secondary as opposing offenses rolled up 400 yards and close to 30 points against his defense and wondered what that meant.
Smith’s system hasn’t changed since he arrived in 2016, so aside from some rookies from this year’s draft starting in the secondary, why were there so many communication issues?
I spoke with several Bucs defensive players off the record over the last two weeks to get the inside scoop on what happened under Smith’s watch and how things have changed for the better with linebackers coach Mark Duffner taking over as defensive coordinator. So instead of breaking down the Bucs vs. Bengals game film this week, I’ve decided to reveal what I learned about why Smith’s defense failed in Tampa Bay.
Under Smith, the Bucs would run half a dozen coverages or so in a given game. That’s about normal. But sometimes, at the first sign of trouble after those coverages have been rolled through in the first quarter with mixed results, Smith would deviate from the game plan and call coverages that weren’t run in practice leading up to the game and maybe haven’t been used in a game in weeks.
That’s one thing for a veteran like safety Chris Conte or cornerback Brent Grimes who has been in Smith’s system for years and has seen it all, but for a second-year starter like safety Justin Evans or cornerback Ryan Smith, who is in his second playing defense, or safety Isaiah Johnson, who is in his first year playing defense, trying to remember a coverage that hasn’t been played in three weeks in the span of 12 seconds while lining up against a bunch formation that features a player like Julio Jones, while trying to identify his assignment and get into the right alignment to use the right technique is not exactly a recipe for success.
It’s a recipe for disaster.
Now imagine being a rookie like Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart or Jordan Whitehead and being asked to run a coverage in Chicago or Atlanta that hasn’t been run since Week 1 or perhaps the preseason.
It’s one thing for Smith to call it. It’s his playbook. He’s taught it, knows it and has a firm grasp of it.
It’s another thing for a rookie, who winds up grasping at straws and guessing what to do as the play clock runs down and the ball is snapped.
What Duffner has done is stick to the game plan. He only calls coverages that the Bucs back seven (defensive backs and linebackers) have practiced during the week and perfected. That gives the players confidence that they know exactly what is coming from Duffner on Sunday with no deviations. As a result, the Bucs defenders can play looser, freer and more aggressive and confident.
After not breaking up a single pass against Atlanta in Smith’s last game, the Bucs secondary broke up three passes against Cleveland and three more against Cincinnati. While Tampa Bay has just one interception this season, the secondary is becoming more confident under Duffner and those will come as the result of tighter coverage and less thinking and more reacting during the second half of the season.
Another huge improvement Duffner has made has been eliminating the multiple checks that would occur on virtually every play. Smith was too much of a tactician from the press box. There would be a play called down to middle linebacker Kwon Alexander’s headset, but for every offensive player that went in motion there would be an additional check to another coverage.
So imagine getting set on defense with 15 seconds left on the play clock. Alexander makes the initial call and you’re Davis or Stewart playing in your fourth or fifth NFL game in Smith’s defense and you’re facing a veteran like Jones or Chicago’s Allen Robinson. It’s a coverage that you haven’t run or practiced since the Saints game in Week 1 and you’re trying to remember what your assignment is – 10 seconds are left.
A tight end goes in motion, and now you’ve checked into a different coverage with Evans making the call – and there are 5 seconds left before the ball is snapped. Then the running back, whether it’s Tarek Cohen in Chicago or Tevin Coleman in Atlanta, motions out of the backfield and into the slot. With literally a few seconds left, that brings another check.
Now the rookie cornerback has essentially had to think about three different coverage calls – the first of which he struggled to remember because it wasn’t practiced during the week – in the span of 15 seconds and boom, the ball is snapped. There’s a split-second hesitation and the jam at the line of scrimmage was missed and automatically the receiver has the advantage and a step on the Bucs defender.
That happened too often under Smith. Anytime there was motion, there was a check and an adjustment had to be made. Too many checks. Too much confusion.
Duffner has eliminated the checks – with only a few logical exceptions. The play that’s called is the play that’s going to be run come hell or high water.
That gives young players like Johnson, Whitehead, Davis, Stewart and even guys with less than two years of experience like Smith and Evans 15 seconds before the ball is snapped to settle in, look at their assignment, quickly study the formation, get lined up correctly and ready to use the appropriate technique for the called play.
Duffer is at least giving the secondary a chance by simplifying things. Smith’s overly complex system with all of the audibles didn’t give this young Bucs defense much of a chance.
And finally, several players told me they could feel Smith’s panic all the way from the press box when things didn’t go right in the first half of games and when he would meet with the team at halftime in the locker room. That didn’t inspire a lot of confidence among the defensive players in what they were doing.
Duffner has come in and calmed the waters and inspired some confidence. While it hasn’t been perfect by any means, the defense has allowed fewer points than the Bucs offense has scored in both games.
After beating Cleveland 26-23 in overtime, Tampa Bay’s defense surrendered 30 of the 37 points Cincinnati scored last Sunday. It wasn’t a stellar performance by the defense against the Bengals, but the Bucs could have won 34-30 if not for Jameis Winston’s pick-six.
Every Bucs defensive player I spoke had nothing bad to say about Smith personally other than he was kind of bland and not as positive as Duffner is. They weren’t trying to throw Smitty under the bus. Rather they were talking about the positive changes that have occurred under Duffner over the past three weeks.
So far, these players absolutely love playing for Duffner, and changing defensive coordinators was the absolute right move by head coach Dirk Koetter.