TAMPA, Fla. — When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) play host to the New Orleans Saints (10-2) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), it will pose arguably the toughest challenge of the season for Mark Duffner, who took over as Bucs defensive coordinator after Mike Smith was fired Oct. 15.
In seven games calling the defense, Duffner has made his mark in a number of key areas.
Return of the dime package
The Bucs haven’t used a dime package (six defensive backs with one linebacker), since Greg Schiano was the head coach in 2012-13. But when middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and backup Jack Cichy each suffered a season-ending torn ACLs, and it was determined that Kendell Beckwith would not be back this season, Duffner and his staff found themselves in a predicament.
They had only one healthy starter (Lavonte David) who excelled in pass coverage, and he was out for two weeks because of a sprained MCL. They also were dealing with several injuries in their defensive backfield.
That’s where Andrew Adams entered the picture. Adams, waived by the Giants and signed by the Bucs on Sept. 25, was a bigger safety who could cover a large area of the field, making him an interesting option as a hybrid player who could serve as a third safety.
“You’re always looking, as far as your scheme, to make the shoes fit the players or vice versa,” Duffner said. “We just felt like looking at our current availability of players, that might be the way to go in terms of both pressure and coverage and everything else on third down in particular.”
The Bucs now use their dime package heavily on third down (they used it for all eight of the Panthers’ third-down attempts last week), and they have improved significantly in this area. In five games under Smith this season, they have allowed opponents a 42.9 percent third-down conversion percentage. Under Duffner, that number has dropped to 33.3 percent — tied for third best in the league.
Under Duffner, the defense has been more active near the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks are continuing to play “off coverage” but with far less cushion. For example, against the Atlanta Falcons, corners were giving Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley a full 10 yards of cushion, which made them more susceptible to easy completions underneath. Under Duffner, it has been closer to seven yards at the most, allowing cornerbacks to better disrupt the routes of receivers.
Has it worked? Under Smith, opposing quarterbacks completed a league-high 76.8 percent of passes. Under Duffner, that number has gone down to 68.4 percent — still not desirable, but an improvement nonetheless. Also under Duffner the defense has played 115 snaps loaded (eight players close to the line of scrimmage) — 27.57 percent. Under Smith they played 71 snaps loaded (19.88 percent).
The most dramatic change for the Bucs has come with their pass rush. Under Smith, the Bucs registered nine sacks in five games, pressuring the quarterback on 21.5 percent of dropbacks — second fewest in the league. In the seven games since, the Bucs registered 24 sacks — second most in the league — and they’re pressuring quarterbacks on 30.7 percent of dropbacks.
What has allowed this to happen? For one, standout play from defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who became the first Buccaneer in more than a decade to record 10.0 sacks in a season. They also have more of a rotation now that Vita Vea has recovered from a calf injury, Beau Allen from a foot injury and Vinny Curry from an ankle injury.
“These last three or four games we’ve kind of been in a five defensive end, three defensive tackle [rotation] and then William Gholston can go either way in base,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “It’s not the rotation that we envisioned at the start of the year, but I think we have finally gotten into a better spot and we’re still not completely healthy.”
There have also been subtle changes in the front four’s alignment. The Bucs have taken more of a “hats on hats” approach, where interior defenders are more lined up directly on top of guards instead of off their shoulders (not surprisingly, they also haven’t done any 3-4, but that’s probably because of insufficient personnel).
Even on one particular sub-package where defensive ends Carl Nassib and Pierre-Paul moved inside, they’ve been right on top of the guards. When asked about this change, Duffner felt the recent success had more to do with technique.
“I think they’re just taking to the coaching a little bit better in terms of the ‘knock back and attack,'” Duffner said. “We’ve never really been a two-gap team. And so, I think that through repetition, we’re trying to improve the fundamentals of the position and the technique, and hopefully that’s taking the move in the right direction.”
The Bucs had one interception over the first six games of the season. This area has arguably taken the longest to fix, but their six picks (four came against the Panthers last week) are tied for the most in the NFL since Week 11. According to ESPN Stats & Information, quarterbacks were hit on two of those interceptions.
“It’s a collective effort,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “I’m not just saying we take the ball away like all the DBs are finally getting picks — no. Taking the ball away is a group effort. You can take the ball away from a D-lineman on a sack-fumble or it can be a run play — somebody poked the ball out. Collectively, the defense just taking the ball away. It changes everything.”
Takeaways will be hard to come by this week against the Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown 30 touchdown passes and has been picked off three times, while the offensive line has surrendered 13 sacks.
However, it’s clear the Saints will be facing a Bucs defense playing better than it did during Tampa Bay’s 48-40 win in Week 1.