Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» Two teams nobody would want to face in the playoffs.
» A young defense that is quickly becoming one of the NFL's top units.
First, we take a look at one of the most overlooked storylines of the 2016 season -- the emergence of Tampa Bay's defense ...
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BUCS' DEFENSE: The real reason for Tampa Bay's playoff push
Shhh! I'm about to let you in on a little secret that's largely gone unnoticed on the national stage.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has quietly grown into one of the NFL's top units under first-year DC Mike Smith.
Now, I know the Bucs have started to garner buzz over their playoff hopes, but most of the attention goes to rising offensive stars Jameis Winston and Mike Evans. Truth be told, though, Tampa Bay has crept into playoff contention because of a defense that looks like a heavyweight contender under the ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach.
Since Week 10, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and rank third in total defense (299 yards per game). Over the past eight games, the defensive front has come alive and registered 21 sacks. And on the season, Tampa is tied for the most takeaways in the NFL with 25.
Those numbers are certainly eye-popping when glancing at the stat sheet, but it's what I've noticed on tape that leads me to believe the Buccaneers are on the verge of reclaiming the dominance that made them one of the top defensive teams for nearly a decade from the late 1990s through the early 2000s.
From a personnel standpoint, the Bucs have not only assembled the right pack of wolves to hunt quarterbacks and ball carriers, but they matched them with a coach and scheme that allows defenders to play fast and loose from snap to whistle. Smith has installed a flexible 4-3 scheme that uses a variety of pre-snap looks and disguises to confuse quarterbacks, yet it features only a handful of different coverages that are fairly easy to digest for young players.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from last week's 16-11 win over the Saints, I noticed that the Buccaneers constantly switched between single-high-safety and two-deep-safety disguises before moving into the opposite coverage. For instance, Tampa would align with a deep safety in the middle and the corners positioned at about 8 yards away from the line of scrimmage before rotating into a standard Cover 2 coverage with the safeties responsible for the deep halves and the CBs playing as a flat-corner players based on a "2-1" read (corners adjust their coverage based on the route of the slot or No. 2 receiver).
The Buccaneers also would show a two-deep coverage during the pre-snap phase before dropping a safety down into the curl/flat area or the hook zone, so they could roll into a three-deep coverage. While the constant shifting and movement confuses the opposing QB, the coverages (Cover 2, Cover 3, Quarters and Man-Free) are straight from a high school playbook. Thus, young defenders are able to quickly master the nuances of the coverage with minimal reps (see: Vernon Hargreaves' promising performance in Year 1). In addition, the simple concepts allow explosive athletes to play without hesitation. Considering the spectacular athleticism displayed by linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, the simple scheme allows Tampa Bay's second-level defenders to play like big-game hunters.
"They are pretty fun to watch on tape," a former NFL scout told me. "They do a great job of running to the ball, and I don't know if I've seen a better tackling team on the perimeter."
After watching a few of the Buccaneers' games, I completely agree with that assessment. They do a great job of getting runners on the ground, and the limited YAC (yards after contact) allows them to put dink-and-dunk offenses in long-yardage situations when the catch-and-run plays don't yield big gains.
Looking at the Coaches Film, I also was impressed by the collective discipline of the defensive backfield. The cornerbacks did a really good job of keeping the ball in front of the defense despite using a variety of techniques at the line of scrimmage. Whether they were executing press, bail or off at the snap, Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes and Hargreaves were playing with "top down" positioning throughout the route. This eliminates the deep ball and forces quarterbacks to settle for underneath throws. With the Buccaneers intent on making teams drive the length of the field on a series of short throws, the disciplined approach has been one of the reasons why the defense has drastically improved since the beginning of the season.
To pull off these tactics, the Bucs have placed the burden on the defensive line to create a pass rush without blitzing. Tampa Bay has blitzed on just 25.5 percent of their snaps. That's well below the league average (30.5), which suggests the Buccaneers are comfortable leaning on their front four to get after the quarterback.
"It starts with [Gerald] McCoy," said a former NFL player familiar with Smith and the Bucs. "He creates chaos at the point of attack. Plus, the rest of the unit is healthy and beginning to flex their muscles at the line."
McCoy's dominance stands out on tape. He's tied with Aaron Donald for the most sacks (seven) among defensive tackles. McCoy uses a terrific combination of strength, power and athleticism that overwhelms blockers at the line. With a quick first step and a swift arm-over maneuver, McCoy slips past lumbering offensive guards. And with McCoy creating instant penetration up the gut, Robert Ayers and Noah Spence are able to corral quarterbacks off the edge. Spence, the 39th overall pick in last April's draft, has notched 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, looking like the disruptive force that many expected when the Buccaneers selected him in the second round.
How does that kind of pressure impact the game? Turnovers. The constant harassment of opposing quarterbacks forces throwers to get rid of the ball quickly, leading to errant passes. With the Buccaneers' defensive backs playing with vision on the quarterback and maintaining "top down" positioning, Tampa Bay racks up interceptions off tips and overthrows. Boasting 14 takeaways since Week 10 (most in the NFL), the Buccaneers' defense is giving the team a decided advantage in the most important statistic in football.
If play is sustained down the stretch, the Buccaneers' defense could finally get its due as one of the best units in football.