Last week, Bucs GM Jason Licht joined the “Schein on Sports” Sirius XM radio program. On the show, Licht was asked about last year’s defense and how it compared to the year prior. Of course, it’s difficult to compare the two years given how banged up the Bucs defense was in 2021.
“Well, we experienced a lot of injuries last year on defense,” Licht said. “Particularly in the back half [of the season]. And that really altered the way [defensive coordinator] Todd [Bowles] and the game plans had to be, playing with a lot of different players at corner. Really kind of hurt us initially. But to still finish the season at 13-4 is a credit to the job that Todd and his defensive staff did. And [head coach] Bruce [Arians] holding it together.”
It is no secret that Tampa Bay’s secondary suffered more than its’ fair share of injuries. Altogether, the unit lost a combined 42 games to injuries. 23 of those were to starters. With that many injuries, the team ended up deploying 12 different players in their secondary. These injuries made for 13 different combinations of players taking the three highest snap counts at corner.
How did this affect the Bucs’ coverage scheme? I dove into the data to find out.
First, it’s important to create a baseline. In 2020, the team had its’ starting five on the field for all but two games. During that season, the Bucs’ coverage scheme was in single-high coverage 51 percent of the time, with two-high looks 45 percent of the time. Bowles’ base coverage is Cover 3, and in 2020 he ran that coverage 31 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Bowles ran some form of man coverage 28 percent of the time. So that will be the baseline we will compare with the 2021 campaign.
Looking at the breakdown above, you will see that when Bowles had his No. 1 cornerback, Carlton Davis, he stuck to his 2020 strategy almost to a ‘T’. Bowles executed similar game plans when he had Jamel Dean in the lineup. With Sean Murphy-Bunting, Bowles leaned into his single-high, Cover 3 tendencies even more. And that’s where the crux of Todd Bowles’ defense seemed to lie last year. With Murphy-Bunting. Let’s look at the defense’s coverage splits with SMB and without.
The defense had its largest coverage splits related to Murphy-Bunting’s presence in the lineup.
Looking at the coverage rates over the course of the season you get the following line-graph (Orange denotes two-high looks, while Blue denotes single-high):
The team lost SMB early in Week 1. Immediately they started running more two-high looks. Now look at Week 12 and beyond (position 11 on the graph). Notice how the single-high looks spiked and two-high looks plummeted. I’ll give you one guess as to why that is. SMB returned to the lineup in Week 11. It looks like Bowles gave him one week to get his feet back under him and then they were off to the single-high races!
How does this relate to the team’s off-season strategy? The signing of Logan Ryan seems very interesting when looking through the prism of this coverage data. Ryan has been at his best when playing in the slot. Last year the team transitioned away from Ross Cockrell in the slot after SMB went down and moved toward Mike Edwards. With that transition came a seeming need to move away from Todd Bowles’ preferred coverage looks. Ryan’s signing provides the team with more depth at slot corner that will most likely allow the team to weather injuries without having to alter their game plans as much.
Per @PFF, here is how Logan Ryan has graded in the slot vs at free safety since 2019 season
Slot: 66.9 FS: 42.8
And here is how Ryan has graded in man coverage in the slot vs zone coverage in the slot since 2019 season
Overall, Bowles continued to operate Cover 3 as his primary defense, but adjusted his complimentary looks to the personnel available to him. Those alterations shouldn’t be as drastic in 2022, thanks to the addition of Ryan to the secondary.