FAB 2. Sapp Weighs In On Bucs’ Lack Of Pass Rush
Just how bad is the Buccaneers’ pass rush this year? It’s awful.
Tampa Bay had one sack in 128 pass attempts coming into Thursday night’s 19-14 loss to New England. The Bucs recorded three sacks against Tom Brady, who dropped back to throw 45 times, and now have four on the season, which ties the team with San Francisco for the lowest sack total in the league through four games.
I don’t have any official statistics to support this claim, but I’m guessing it’s the worst start in Bucs history in terms of its pass rush.
As I’ve written before on PewterReport.com, the internal metric the Bucs would like to hit is one sack for every 14 pass attempts. If Tampa Bay’s defense were on target the team would have 12 sacks by now. Instead it has just four.
That’s just 19 sacks behind Jacksonville, the current league leader.
The staggering inability to get to the quarterback is somewhat out of the blue, too, as Tampa Bay has done nothing but increase its number of sacks over the last several years from 27 quarterback captures in 2012 to 35 the next year, to 36 in 2014, and 38 sacks in each of the last two years. The Bucs are on pace to record 16 sacks in 2017.
Nobody saw this coming outside of the fact that only two starters, Noah Spence and Lavonte David, got sacks in the preseason – and both came on blitzes.
Entering the New England game on Thursday night, the Bucs had gone two games and 10 straight quarters without a sack since Spence took down Mike Glennon in the second quarter of Tampa Bay’s season opener in Week 2.
To say that Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith is concerned would be an understatement.
“We have not been able to get the quarterback on the ground,” Smith told the media on Tuesday prior to the Patriots game. “We had some pressures where we’ve gotten him to move off the spot. Sometimes sacks are like turnovers – they come in bunches. We haven’t been able to turn the ball over. Those two areas are the biggest concerns of what we have not accomplished in the last two weeks. It’s not always just the guys that are rushing. It’s also what’s happening with the coverage. We’ve got to do a good job of making sure when the quarterback is trying to throw the ball that if it’s a man coverage, we’ve got to be in phase with the guys. If it’s a match coverage, we’ve got to be matching them. It’s across the board – we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to be more productive though in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback and affecting the quarterback.”
Don’t think Smith is thinking about this non-stop? When asked a question about defensive end Jacquies Smith’s return to the lineup against New York, the defensive coordinator gave a one-sentence answer about Smith, who wound up being released on Wednesday, and then went right back into the team’s pass rush woes unprompted.
“We’ve got to do it, as coaches, a couple ways,” Smith ranted. “We’ve got to look at what we’re doing schematically first. Secondly, we’ve got to look at the guys that we’re asking to do it and what we are asking them to do. That’s something that we’ve really dove into the last two weeks after the way that we rushed the passer. There are some things I can do better. There are some things I think that all of us can do better. The guys that we’ve got are the guys that we’ve got and we certainly hope that we can produce more pass rush whether it is something that we do schematically, moving guys into different spots. We’re willing to try anything when you have two games that you haven’t had the production that you need.”
When I asked Smith about Will Clarke IV, he replied with a few sentences on the Bucs’ new defensive end then kept harping on the team’s lack of pass rush.
“We’ve got to find a way to get in a rhythm to put some pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. “In terms of doing it, whether it’s changing what we’re doing schematically or changing it with different players lined up in different spots or calling it at the right time – we’ve got to find a way to do that.”
The Bucs took a step in the right direction on Thursday night as Clinton McDonald and Gerald McCoy got their first sacks of the season, and linebacker Adarius Glanton got the first sack of his career and forced Tom Brady to fumble. That’s all well and good, but keep in mind that the Patriots offensive line had given up 13 sacks in the first four games, so that’s about their average.
I’ve always loved defensive line play. To me watching defensive linemen rush the passer is the most exciting part of football. I spent six years coaching defensive line on my son’s Pop Warner football team. I’ve spent hours talking pass rush with former Bucs defensive line coach Joe Cullen and attended his pass rush clinic.
I’ve spent years learning about the pass rush from former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, a true guru, and spending time with former Tampa Bay starting defensive linemen like Chidi Ahanotu and Brad Culpepper, former backups like Ellis Wyms and Tyoka Jackson and legends like Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. I’ve gained knowledge from conversations with present day Buccaneers like Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Will Gholston and others.
But I’m no expert and don’t claim to be. Having only played two years of high school football on the defensive line, there is still so much I don’t know about pass rushing, and I didn’t play a down in college football or the NFL.
So after a few weeks of getting the expected company line general answers about the pass rush from Smith – the guy that runs the defense – McDonald, Clarke, Jacquies Smith, Chris Baker and others, I wanted to dig deeper.
So I turned to Sapp – the greatest living pass rusher in Tampa Bay history – for help. Make no mistake. Sapp is still a Buccaneer. He lives and dies for Bucs football on Sundays. His close mentoring relationship with McCoy has been well documented.
He was at Sunday’s Bucs vs. Giants game and had a chance to review the coaches film, just like I did on the All-22 Game Pass on NFL.com. Because he has a far greater understanding of what he sees than I do, I’ll pass along what he saw from watching the Bucs vs. Giants game – a game in which Eli Manning dropped back to pass 52 times (49 pass attempts, three scrambles) and was hit just twice – and wasn’t sacked at all.
“My opinion is that they have got to communicate and execute,” Sapp said. “That’s the biggest thing you have to do as a defensive front – communicate. Then go execute what you’ve communicated. Right now I’m looking at a bunch of lone wolves out there thinking they can get it done. What they have to realize is that the pack will survive, and the lone wolf dies.
“They want to play well and you think you are doing the right thing, but you are not communicating with your teammates. I’m watching them run into each other.”
Review all 52 of Manning’s drop backs and you’ll see a few collisions between Bucs defensive linemen – more than defensive line coach Jay Hayes or Smith want to see for sure. The communication Sapp thinks is missing isn’t just between the defensive linemen on the field. It’s likely between the players and the coaches, too.
Smith seems to feel that as well and I’ll repeat his quote from earlier:
“We’ve got to do it, as coaches, a couple ways. We’ve got to look at what we’re doing schematically first. We’ve got to look at what we’re doing schematically first. Secondly, we’ve got to look at the guys that we’re asking to do it and what we are asking them to do.”
Looking at the tape, Sapp said he didn’t see any communication on the field between the defensive linemen, who ran plenty of games – twists and stunts – against the Giants. Who is making the game calls for the Bucs then? Is it Hayes from the sidelines? Is he making the calls or is Smith making the calls from the press box to linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who then relays that to the defensive linemen?
What I saw on tape – and Sapp confirmed – was that the spacing of the Bucs defensive linemen was too wide to run games, and the ends were split out so wide that they couldn’t get to the quarterback. Take a look at the play below and you’ll see Ayers and right defensive end Ryan Russell (to the left on the screen) try to execute a TE (tackle goes first, end loops around) stunt on third-and-9 in which the tackle penetrates outside and the end loops around inside. The spacing between the two is too far and there’s too much ground for Russell to cover. Also notice how far Spence is spaced out so far away from the ball. He has no chance of getting to Manning.
In the second half the Bucs defensive line tightened up their spacing, so there was an in-game adjustment made. Yet it wasn’t enough.
“Evidently something is missing in this thing,” Sapp said. “We would be in the meeting room and Marinelli would be talking about 1-on-1’s and I would be laughing. He said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I said, ‘Who in here gets the 1-on-1?’ He said, ‘That’s you.’ I said, ‘All right then. So now we’re doing this like a pack of wild dogs. If I ain’t getting the 1-on-1s and I’m getting beat up all day then somebody better be hitting the quarterback, all right? That’s the rule.’ We devised a system where we [ran our games and] went right to left and then left to right. And when we figured out that somebody was trying to do something against us we would adjust in-game and figure out a way to sometimes run double games on them and stuff like that. That’s the kind of adjustment that has to be made in-game with the players that are on the field.
“When I saw the tape and took the emotion out of it like you have to do, they’re just not communicating. Communicating and execution – those are the two things I would go to. The one thing I would take out of it is the games are being called from the sideline. If that’s the case, I don’t agree with that. You’re not out on the field. You’re not setting the guy up. When you get your guys to the sidelines you say, ‘Hey fellas, we’re staying straight but the quarterback ain’t going down. Do you want to throw some games at them?’ That’s what Marinelli used to say to us. That’s what you do. You talk.”
Sapp said that he doesn’t understand some of the technical ways the Bucs’ pass rush is constructed. For example, the Bucs ran some T-T stunts, which are twists involving both defensive tackles where one is the penetrator and attacks the center and one is the looper.
“They do read TOMs,” Sapp said, explaining to me that a TOM is a twist stunt between both the nose tackle and the three-technique tackle. “That means when you get off the ball you take off and you have to decipher which way the center is going and then he becomes the penetrator and the other guy loops around. What? Read TOMs?! It has to be designated prior to the snap – nose or three. If we get it wrong we both push the hell out of the same A gap.”
If Sapp is correct about the read TOMs, the twist between the defensive tackles takes a split second longer to execute because of the time it takes to see which tackle the center is attacking. That split second is the difference between getting a sack, getting a hit on the QB and not getting a hit at all. The twist below results in a hit on Manning – only after he completes the throw for a first down.
Sapp said the Bucs’ pass rushers look too robotic while executing games and getting after the quarterback.
“Most people ain’t trained monkeys – they don’t like to be told what to do, especially these new age kids,” Sapp said. “There’s no communication going on out there on the football field. That’s the rebellion that a D-lineman would take against the system if, I’m being told what to do, as I understand it. I would rebel. If you told me what to do from the sidelines I would do it just like a damn robot. I would hate it. If I was a defensive lineman I would rebel.”
Sapp went on to explain the importance of communication between the players and the position coach, and that the coach needs to be willing to take some input from the guys on the field who are doing the actual pass rushing.
“One time we were playing the Minnesota Vikings and they were running Fan Iso, and you can go back and look this one up in 1996 at the Ol’ Sombrero,” Sapp said. “The Minnesota Vikings were running one of the silliest plays where the O-line stands up and they act like they are going to give it to the running back like a little sprint draw, but it’s right down hill in the A gap. I’m sitting in the B gap and Monte Kiffin is cussing everybody out about being outside his gap. ‘If you’re playing in my defense you’re staying in your gap!’ I’m watching this and we need to play a seven-man front because the Minnesota Vikings were throwing the ball with Chris Carter and Jake Reed. They didn’t have Randy Moss at the time, but they had Jake Reed and a couple of okay tight ends so they could spread the field and come after us. We needed to get two safeties back and we developed this Cover 2 – Tampa 2 thing.
“I was standing in the B gap and watching this play go in the A gap and I mean they were going berserk on the sidelines. Marinelli looks at me and says, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Do you want me to stop that play?’ Marinelli looks at me said, ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘No problem.’ They ran that shit again and I snatched the guard and went underneath into the A gap and grabbed Adrian Murrell – and this is one of the first times I ever picked anybody up because I was mad – picked him up and slammed him down. I was mad. We never saw that play again. When you leave it up to your players on the field that understand what it is, you get reward out of it as a coach, and I now get a rapport where we can build something.”
The Bucs defensive line accounted for 27.5 of the team’s 38 sacks last year, and at times it was the same four rushers in the game – McCoy, Ayers, Spence and Russell – that recorded four of the team’s five sacks against Seattle in 2016. So what’s different this year?
“They had a nice little rotation going, and once you have a nice little rotation going and you know the strengths and weaknesses of the men that can rush on your team, that’s when you put yourself in position where you can do some special things,” Sapp said. “This is a group of guys who most people think can get to the quarterback and we’re watching these kids just spin their wheels. When you’re talking about a defensive line that is not communicating and is running into each other – that’s like Keystone Cops, Three Stooges stuff.
“Every time you see a game that is being called – and if it ain’t by the men in the trenches that’s where I think the disconnect is. When you are asking men to do something and they have no say in what they’re doing that is the ultimate recipe for a rebellion.”
The Bucs may not be at that point where they are rebelling against the coaches now, but if the defensive line continues to fail at getting to the quarterback there could be some division between the coaches and the players if there isn’t good communication going on. Keep in mind that Sapp is retired and isn’t in the defensive line meetings or at practice. He’s just offering his opinion on what might be contributing to the team’s woeful pass rush.
I put in a request to speak to Hayes to discuss some of the things that might – and I stress the word “might” – be happening on the field and in the meeting room this week, and I didn’t have the opportunity to due to the fact that it’s a short week. My attempt to talk to some Bucs defensive linemen about this subject was limited to post-game interviews after the Patriots game due to the short week. They did confirm that almost all of the twists and stunts that are called are called from Smith to Beckwith with Hayes making some calls from the sidelines. The players rarely call their own games and don’t have the freedom to as Sapp and Culpepper once did.
Sapp isn’t calling out Hayes or Smith, nor is he trashing the Bucs players over the lack of sacks. He would love nothing more than to see Tampa Bay’s pass rush come alive, as it began to on Thursday night, but only thinks that happens if there is a strong collaboration between coaches and players.
“I only know one way to play it because I was trained by a killer Marine,” Sapp said of Marinelli, who served in the Marines in Vietnam. “Most men in the Armed Forces realize that it requires a team to get this thing done. Everybody that has something useful, thoughtful or stupid helps. Sometimes the stupid, far-out stuff helps because sometimes the far-out idea puts you back on the focus of going back to the basics.”
Sapp would like to see the Bucs defensive line have tighter spacing so there is less ground to cover when running ET (end goes first, then tackle loops around) and TE (tackle goes first, then end loops around) twists, as well as rushing from the defensive end positions. Having young ends like Spence, Russell and Clarke play one side of the line and master it and get into a rhythm rather than flip-flopping back and forth might help, too.
In Sapp’s early days he was the three-technique, Culpepper was the nose tackle, Chidi Ahanotu was the left defensive end and Regan Upshaw was at right end. That never changed. In the Bucs’ Super Bowl run in 2002, Greg Spires was always the left end and Rice was always the right end.
One thing is for certain. The Bucs need to change something because whatever they’re doing right now isn’t working with the regularity it needs to.
“It’s crazy, I’m looking at this game and I’m like, ‘Why isn’t the quarterback on the ground?’” Sapp said about the Bucs vs. Giants game. “Gerald had a good start to the game – all in the backfield. He was going to take over this game like I took over those Giants games.
“I hate those snobby, New York ‘I got my bat in the back of the car’ guys. So what? We carry guns in Florida. You don’t want to bring your bat down here, cuz! We’ll shoot you.’ So those New Yorkers can go ahead with their little bats and hoopla and their good pizza and all that bullshit. I’m not a New Yorker. Nothing about them attracts me, so I was saying, ‘Take it over, Gerald!’ I was standing out in the rain watching this because I hate the Giants so bad. We get off to a good start … but then Eli’s still up. He wasn’t down all day.”
The same thing didn’t happen to Brady. Tampa Bay’s pass rush got him three times. Is that the start of something good upfront or the product of playing against a shaky New England O-line? Time will tell, but according to Sapp it’s time for the coaches to listen to the players and start adjusting to what they are seeing on the field.