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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. The Moves Koetter Needs To Make
Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter made a lot of the right moves in the first two weeks of the season, especially giving up play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, for which I praised him.
The Bucs benefited from those decisions for the first two weeks of the season with an opening day upset at New Orleans, 48-40, beating Saints future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and Sean Peyton at their own game, and a stunning 27-21 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
But a hot 2-0 start has cooled to a 2-2 record after a heartbreaking 30-27 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football and an embarrassing 48-10 loss at Chicago.
I’ll remind you that the Glazers fired the last two coaches – Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith – that had back-to-back losing seasons. And Raheem Morris was fired after producing just one winning season out of three in Tampa Bay. A similar fate awaits Koetter unless he can right the Bucs ship after the bye week.
So what are those right moves? Does it involve firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith, whose defense surrendered six touchdowns to Mitchell Trubisky and allowed him to play better against this Bucs team than either future Hall of Famer Brees or Ben Roethlisberger did?
Not according to Koetter.
“For those people that think snapping their fingers and changing your coordinator a quarter of the way through the season … okay, what would you do after that?” Koetter said. “If we fired Mike Smith, then what would the next move be, alright? Changing one person when we had things go wrong at all levels yesterday – as I said yesterday, we as coaches have to coach better. That starts with me, but Mike Smith didn’t miss any tackles. He didn’t not rush the passer. He didn’t blow any coverages. He didn’t have any communication errors. Sure, the play-callers on both sides of the ball would love to have calls back. I mean anything that doesn’t work … but we have to figure that out.”
It’s true that Smith didn’t miss any tackles or blow any coverages, but he also didn’t blitz Trubisky – a second-year quarterback in his second offensive system in as many seasons – a single time in the first half when the scouting report said that he was the worst-rated quarterback in the league when pressured.
That’s not necessarily a fireable offense, but it’s a sign of extremely poor coaching job, especially when no adjustment was made in the first half to bring pressure in the form a blitz or more exotic looks. The lone exotic look Smith showed in the entire game resulted in a sack. Imagine that! But he didn’t even go back to once even though it worked before.
What is a fireable offense is giving up 400 yards of total offense in 19 of the 36 games that Smith has run the defense. That’s inexcusable.
Do you think a bye week will fix it? Does Koetter think Smith can simply snap his fingers and things will automatically improve? Koetter’s delusional if he thinks that’s the case.
Back in 2016, Smith’s defense was the best in the league on third downs. Last year it became the worst on third downs. This year the Bucs are giving up more total yards, more passing yards and more points than they did a year ago when they had less talent.
So what’s changed since 2016? Smith no longer blitzes the A gap with middle linebacker Kwon Alexander with regularity, and no longer deploys a double A gap blitz with Alexander and Lavonte David as he did more frequently in 2016. That immediate pressure in quarterback’s faces resulted in sacks and hurried throws that either failed to pick up the necessary yards to gain or were incompletions or interceptions.
After David recorded five sacks in 2016 and Alexander recorded three, neither linebacker blitzed as often and neither recorded a single quarterback capture last year, which is inexcusable and a big reason why the Bucs ranked last in sacks with 22.
When Alexander blitzed against Philadelphia in Week 2 he got a key sack-fumble. When Alexander blitzed on the first series of the second half he drilled Trubisky and forced an incompletion. Of course with the score already being 38-3 it was too little, too late by then.
Koetter wondered aloud about what good firing Smith would do? Well, he essentially fired himself as the offensive play-caller and turned those duties over to Monken, and the offense now ranks third with 432.8 yards per game, the passing game ranks first with 363.2 yards per game and the offense ranks seventh in scoring, averaging 28 points per game.
Seems like a change worked pretty well on that side of the ball, why not make a change on the defensive side before it’s too late?
I would replace Smith with linebackers coach Mark Duffner because I would want Alexander and David to be featured more on defense and in the pass rush. As Duffner is the linebackers coach, I’m trusting that would happen. It’s been a long time since Duffner has been a defensive coordinator in the league, but at this point, it might be worth the risk of giving him a shot at calling the plays. At least since he’s on the current staff he would have a sense of what not to do.
Duffner was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator in 2001-02, and in his first year the Bengals defense allowed the unit’s fewest single points (309) since 1989 and the fewest yards per game (302) since 1983. The Bengals also set a franchise single-season record for sacks that year with 48, which was a mark that stood for 11 years. Duffner, who is in his third year with the Bucs, has 19 years of NFL coaching experience and 22 years worth of experience at the college level, including 11 seasons as a head coach at Maryland (1992-96) and Holy Cross (1986-91).
If the Bucs were to replace Smith the best time to do it would be during the bye week, and the replacement would have to come from in-house because the season is already under way and the train is rolling down the tracks. It’s too difficult to bring an outside coordinator in right now and have the players learn a new defense on the fly without the benefit of OTAs and training camp. That would only cause more chaos.
Duffner would get the nod over defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who may be a coordinator one day, but has zero play-calling experience and would prove to be too much of a gamble with so much at stake this season.
Smith doesn’t even have to be fired by the Bucs. He can remain on the staff in the role as a senior defensive consultant without play-calling duties. I don’t necessarily like to see anybody lose his job.
Smith got his start in the NFL in Baltimore as a defensive line coach under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio from 1999-2001 and then became the Ravens linebackers coach in 2002. When Del Rio got the Jacksonville head coaching job in 2003 he brought Smith with him to be the defensive coordinator until 2008 when Smith became Atlanta’s head coach until 2014.
Smith delegated the defensive coordinator duties in Atlanta to several coordinators, so before joining Tampa Bay’s staff in 2016 the last time he had called plays was in 2007 when the main priority was stopping Tennessee running back Eddie George. Back then when Smith was in Jacksonville, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning throwing for 300 yards was a big deal in the NFL. Now in the modern day NFL, eight teams are averaging over 300 yards passing per game.
Heck, it’s uncommon when quarterbacks don’t pass for 300 yards anymore. But the league’s great defenses don’t allow more than 245 yards passing per game – and there are currently 12 defenses that are accomplishing that with four defenses holding opponents under 200 yards passing per game.
The game of football had passed Lovie Smith and his Tampa 2 defense by years ago, and it’s looking like the same can be said of Mike Smith and the quarters defense and the off-man coverage that he prefers to play. The NFL has rapidly evolved into a passing league with a bunch of plays and formations stolen from the college game. I haven’t seen evidence that he is adjusting well to these newer concepts. The only seven stop drops you see any more – which were offensive staples back in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s – now come in max protection schemes, which the Bears deployed a few times on Sunday, including their first touchdown.
On the Trey Burton touchdown, Chicago had seven players blocking four with both Alexander and David camping out five yards off the line of scrimmage in zone coverage guarding no one. The back and the tight end that they would have been assigned to stayed in to block – and neither Alexander nor David attacked and Trubisky had all day to scan the field and throw the ball.
I know of one NFL team that brought in several offensive coaches from the college ranks in the offseason to go through a coaches clinic with that NFL team’s defensive staff on how to keep up with and defend new innovative formations, schemes and plays. That NFL team has a defense that is currently ranked in the top 12 in all four of the major categories – run defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense.
I have no idea whether or not Duffner could make better adjustments than Smith, but at this point, would it hurt to try? I just don’t have faith in Smith, his scheme and his lack of in-game adjustments at this point, and neither do Bucs fans. Our current Ford’s Garage Pewter Poll on PewterReport.com showed that 93 percent of those voting said the Bucs should fire Smith, and the poll had over 1,300 votes as of this writing.
On paper, this is a better Tampa Bay defense in terms of talent and experience than it was last year – and yet the results are worse. There is no way the Bucs can continue to surrender 445.8 yards and 33 points per game and expect to have a winning season. It won’t happen. And I’ve seen nothing to suggest that continuing on in the same manner with Smith at the helm will change that for the better.
Aside from a change at defensive coordinator, other moves I would make would include benching cornerback Brent Grimes in favor of third-year player Ryan Smith. Grimes is a liability against the run whereas Smith is faster, tougher and a willing tackler. Smith played a fantastic game at cornerback against Philadelphia in Week 2 and had a very good second half of football against Chicago when Grimes was benched.
Keep in mind that Grimes had to be talked into playing one more season – $8 million will convince a lot of people – and that’s never good. I’m not suggesting that Grimes is collecting a check or is necessarily half-hearted about football, but at age 35 and coming off a sub-par training camp, let’s just say I don’t think he’s as motivated this season as he has been in years past.
I would also bench second-round pick M.J. Stewart at nickel cornerback and give Javien Elliott a shot. Elliott played well as a rookie in a few starts at nickel in 2016 and has done enough in practice and the preseason to stick around Tampa Bay since then. I thought Elliott had a good camp this year.
Stewart, who is starting in place of the injured Vernon Hargreaves III, has gotten picked on every week and surrendered several big plays and a couple of touchdowns last week in Chicago. He might benefit from watching on the sidelines and come in every third series on defense. Stewart is smart and tough, which are qualities the Bucs were looking for when they drafted him, but after Sunday’s game I questioned whether he has enough athleticism in my 2-Point Conversion column.
By no means is the book isn’t completely written on Stewart after four games, but I just wonder if Stewart, who ran a 4.54 at the NFL Scouting Combine and tested in the bottom one third of all defensive backs in other athletic drills, has what it takes to cover quicker, faster receivers in the slot. Elliott is quicker and faster, running a 4.41 time as an undrafted free agent out of Florida State, plus this is his third season in Tampa Bay’s defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, I would start Evan Smith over Caleb Benenoch and flip the existing script as both players see playing time at right guard. I would have Smith play two-thirds of the snaps and only one-third for Benenoch.
I know the Bucs have high hopes for Benenoch and for Alex Cappa, the team’s third-round pick from this year’s draft, but while the front office would like to see draft picks like Stewart and Benenoch get playing time to develop, the Bucs need to win games. Like Elliott at nickel cornerback, I feel that Smith, who has more experience and has played better than Benenoch, deserves a shot to start.
I would keep Cappa on the bench until he develops – even if his rookie season is a redshirt year. Cappa looked like a sack waiting to happen in training camp and the preseason, and it typically takes offensive linemen several years to develop into quality starters.
I would keep Jameis Winston as the starter, but if he starts off cold and throws a couple of first half interceptions in the first half where it doesn’t look like it’s going to be his day, I wouldn’t hesitate to put Ryan Fitzpatrick into the game for a spark and then go back to starting Winston the next week.
Koetter has to be a bit selfish and understand that his job is to win football games. Period.
Koetter’s job is not to make sure Ronald Jones, Stewart or Benenoch develops, or that Winston gets ample time to warrant a long-term contract extension. It’s not about working with Licht to make sure the team’s draft picks start, nor is it about sticking with Smith at defensive coordinator because he trusts Smitty will figure it out.
“First off, let’s get one thing straight,” Koetter said on Monday. “It has zero to do with relationships, okay? None of this is about relationships. This is business, alright? This is how I make my living, and it’s about how every guy in this building makes his living, so we can put that one to rest.”
If that truly is the case, then it’s time to move on to a new defensive coordinator and to go with the lineup that gives the Bucs the best chance to win on a week-to-week basis. But while we may see some line-up changes when Tampa Bay travels to Atlanta, don’t expect anyone other than Smith to be calling the defensive plays.