The process of building a Super Bowl champion starts with constructing a team that has the capacity to win a division.
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As a player with the Buffalo Bills during their remarkable dominance of the AFC in the early 1990s, I learned the importance of winning the division from coach Marv Levy. And I continue to believe that is the way title teams are built in today's NFL.
When I review the offseason moves of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I'm convinced general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano are committed to building a defense that can shut down the formidable aerial attacks of their NFC South rivals. Given some time to study the Bucs' offseason acquisitions and how they could impact the defensive scheme, I've come up with three reasons why the upgraded secondary will help Tampa Bay make a run at the division crown:
1) Darrelle Revis' diverse game expands the Bucs' defensive playbook.
The term "shutdown corner" is overused in pro football, but prior to last season's ACL injury, Revis certainly deserved that distinction, based on his remarkable ability to snuff out elite receivers. The seventh-year pro has compiled an impressive résumé, successfully blanketing the likes of Andre Johnson, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne and many more Pro Bowl receivers while surrendering just eight touchdowns in his career. Additionally, Revis has amassed 19 interceptions and 98 pass breakups in 79 career games.
While other elite corners might boast better numbers in some categories, few have been tasked with the responsibility of covering the opponent's top pass-catcher all over the field. Whether it's meant lining up against explosive receivers split out wide or shadowing crafty slot guys, Revis has shown he can change roles each week, based on the tendencies of the opponent and the composition of its receiving corps. Being able to do that requires a diverse skill set and an exceptionally high football IQ.
Having studied Revis' game throughout the years, I've been most impressed with his versatility, technique and instincts. Revis is a rare commodity at the position, possessing the size and strength to match up with big-bodied receivers on the perimeter while also boasting the quickness and burst to run with speedsters. Most importantly, he is a technically sound player with the capacity to play man or zone utilizing a variety of techniques.
From mugging receivers in press coverage at the line of scrimmage to keying the three-step drop while adhering to hash-split rules -- cornerbacks will anticipate routes from receivers based on their alignment and the location of the ball on the field -- Revis' mastery of the fundamentals allows him to thrive in any scheme. This gives the defensive play-caller ultimate flexibility in the game plan, allowing him to diversify coverages to take away the strengths of the opponent's personnel.
Now, Revis might not return to All-Pro form immediately following a lengthy rehab from a torn ACL, but that shouldn't deter the Buccaneers from building packages around his immense talent. When healthy, he has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to take on the opponent's No. 1 receiver with little assistance from a safety over the top. This could encourage the Buccaneers to utilize more "quarters" coverage concepts, with Revis playing as the field corner.
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In theory, Revis would essentially play man coverage on the outside receiver to his side, without help from the safety. This would allow safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson to turn their attention elsewhere, keeping quarterbacks from attacking the middle of the field. Additionally, the Buccaneers can incorporate some quarter-quarter-half concepts (field corner and strong safety are each responsible for covering one quarter of the field, while the boundary corner covers the flat and the free safety plays the deep half) to put a double team on the weak-side receiver. Given the explosive receiving tandems that reside in the NFC South, the utilization of this coverage will help the Buccaneers suffocate the passing game on the perimeter, with Revis locking down one wideout and a double team taking care of the other.
If Revis is even close to his pre-injury form, he could help spark a dramatic defensive turnaround in 2013.
2) Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson shut down the middle of the field.
To play championship-caliber defense in the NFL, a unit must be strong down the middle. While most observers focus on the play of the defensive line and linebackers, the safety position has become pivotal to defensive success, thanks to the transformation of the NFL into a passing league. Savvy offensive coordinators are using hybrid tight ends and slot receivers to create mismatches in space, leading to more big plays between the hashes. Also, quarterbacks are no longer fearful of taking shots down the middle of the field, with enhanced penalties limiting big hits on receivers.
After finishing dead last in passing defense last season, the Buccaneers needed to find a way to shut down passing lanes between the hashes. Barron, the team's top draft pick last year, enjoyed a solid rookie campaign as the designated playmaker in the middle at strong safety. He finished the season with 88 tackles, 10 pass breakups, one interception and a forced fumble. Most impressively, Barron showcased ideal versatility, playing as a headhunter against the run while also displaying the athleticism and instincts to roam freely in the middle against the pass. Barron's emerging cover skills allowed the Buccaneers to use him in man coverage against tight ends in the box and on the perimeter.
This was particularly evident in divisional matchups against the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. Barron played a major role in keeping tight ends Jimmy Graham (Saints), Greg Olsen (Panthers) and Tony Gonzalez (Falcons) below their season averages. This was quite a feat, considering how the Bucs' uncertainty at free safety limited the kind of coverage used in the back end.
Things definitely changed when Goldson joined the fray this offseason. The two-time Pro Bowler is a rangy playmaker with outstanding instincts, awareness and anticipation. He excels at roaming the deep middle as a center fielder; knowing that Goldson is capable of covering for their mistakes, his teammates are able to play aggressively and with more confidence.
From a coverage standpoint, Goldson's presence in the lineup will enable the Buccaneers to mix in some single-high safety coverage (safety aligned in the deep middle) with their base split-coverage (both safeties are responsible for covering various parts of the middle of the field) to essentially shut down the passing lanes between the hashes. This is an important aspect to improving the Buccaneers' pass defense; Goldson eliminates the deep ball down the middle, while the speed and athleticism of the Goldson/Barron tandem gives Tampa Bay the flexibility to take away the deep sideline areas of the field.
This team was victimized repeatedly by the deep ball in 2012 -- Tampa Bay surrendered the second-most completions of 20-plus yards. This season, improved safety play should help keep balls from flying over the top of the defense.
3) The upgraded secondary will lead to more sacks and pressures.
When Dominik and Schiano set out to improve the Buccaneers' secondary with the additions of Revis, Goldson and second-round draft pick Johnthan Banks, their goal was to tighten up coverage in the back end to create better rush opportunities for the front line. While most defensive coaches believe the pass rush affects the coverage more than the coverage impacts the pass rush, the Buccaneers' struggles getting to the passer (just 27 sacks in 2012) stemmed largely from their inability to hold up in coverage.
Tampa Bay simply lacked the personnel (and confidence) to hold up consistently in isolated matchups, which limited the number of blitzes called in the game plan. Moreover, it put an enormous burden on a young defensive line to generate pressure on the passer with just four rushers. That approach worked for the Buccaneers in their heyday, when Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice were wreaking havoc on opponents, but the current team features just one blue-chip player on the front line (defensive tackle Gerald McCoy) and must rely on some five- and six-man blitzes to create favorable situations at the point of attack. Therefore, the Buccaneers need pass defenders with the skills to hold up in man coverage, particularly press-man coverage. By eliminating free access to receivers on the perimeter, the Bucs can force the quarterback to hold on to the ball longer, increasing the likelihood of a sack in the pocket. The constant harassment of receivers also alters the timing and rhythm of the passing game while forcing pass catchers to work harder to get open.
As I look at the Buccaneers' depth chart, I see three defenders -- Revis, Banks and Leonard Johnson -- with the capacity to thrive in press coverage. Revis and Banks, in particular, are the kind of long, rangy cornerbacks who give big-bodied receivers trouble with their aggressiveness and tenacity. Johnson is a sticky defender with the savvy to play inside or out, making him an ideal nickel cornerback.
With a trio of cornerbacks capable of effectively matching up with the explosive receiver groups of their NFC South counterparts, the Buccaneers have the pieces in place to make a run at the division title on the strength of a revamped defense.