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News » Bucs Tampa-Two defense gets deep six

Bucs Tampa-Two defense gets deep six

Bucs Tampa-Two defense gets deep six
TAMPA - The giant vertical posters of former Buccaneers stars like Derrick Brooks and Jeff Garcia were still hanging last week outside Raymond James Stadium.

Change, though, had come much quicker at Tampa Bay's nearby headquarters. The Bucs held their first minicamp with a new head coach (Raheem Morris), some new faces (ex-New York Giants running back Derrick Ward among them) and — most surprisingly — a new defensive philosophy.

Yes, the famed Tampa-Two is being deep-sixed to a large extent. In its place will be a more common 4-3 system implemented by new coordinator Jim Bates.

"It's more an in-your-face defense as opposed to zones and reading the quarterback," Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "There's going to be some adjustment."

This move isn't as jolting as Denver's recent decision to trade quarterback Jay Cutler. But it does represent a bold offseason step made by another 32-year-old head coach trying to blaze a different trail than his predecessors.

Since the mid-1990s, Tampa Bay's defense has deployed a zone-coverage scheme that emphasized quickness over power. The Bucs frustrated quarterbacks, who were forced to dink-and-dunk because long completions were hard to come by, especially when defensive linemen Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp were bringing heavy pressure. Brooks — a future Hall of Fame selection as an outside linebacker — and five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber also thrived under former coordinator Monte Kiffin. Tampa Bay fielded the NFL's ninth-ranked defense in 2008, marking its 11th top 10 finish in the past 12 years.

The Bucs became so synonymous with the system that it was called the "Tampa-Two," even when teams like Indianapolis and Chicago were running it.

Yet when Kiffin left at season's end to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee, the Tampa-Two went with him. Instead of hiring someone with familiarity running that style, Morris added a replacement whose scheme is predicated upon press coverage and larger defensive tackles with different gap responsibilities.

So is this just change for change's sake? Morris says no.

First and foremost is his respect for the 62-year-old Bates, a defensive coordinator in Denver, Green Bay and Miami earlier this decade. The two were introduced several years ago through Jim's son Jeremy, who was a Bucs assistant at the time. Jim Bates said he unsuccessfully tried adding Morris to his 2005 staff in Green Bay when the latter was Tampa Bay's assistant secondary coach.

Morris is a Mike Tomlin disciple and leans heavily on Pittsburgh's head coach for advice. Morris points to the fact Tomlin — who was steeped in the Tampa-Two as a former Bucs assistant — didn't force Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to change his renowned zone-blitz scheme. Morris said he was going to treat Bates the same way.

"Our mindset was, 'Let's not change what Jim does well,'" Bucs first-year general manager Mark Dominik said last Wednesday between Bucs practices. "Let's see if we can adopt some philosophies of both systems, but mainly stay within Jim's system because it has worked."

That, however, presents a new set of challenges: Dominik admits personnel changes may be needed to make the system click.

Bates' greatest NFL success came with the Dolphins when he had two massive defensive tackles (Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener) clogging the interior of the offensive line. The duo allowed undersized middle linebacker Zach Thomas to avoid one-on-one blocking, clearing the way for a slew of 100-plus tackle seasons.

"It all starts up the middle," said Bates, who spent last season out of coaching while recovering from hip surgery. "You've got to have tackles who can take on blocks and keep the linebackers clean for the most part."

Ruud currently doesn't have the same protection that Thomas was afforded. The heaviest defensive lineman on the roster is 315-pound Ryan Sims, a backup who has never fulfilled expectations as the No. 6 overall pick by Kansas City in the 2002 draft.

Most of the Bucs linemen are small-but-swift penetrators in the mold of Chris Hovan. A four-year Bucs starter, the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Hovan says his responsibilities are different than in the Kiffin regime.

"Instead of getting up-field and having guys overlap and run to the ball, it's more holding (offensive lineman) at the line of scrimmage and staying square," he said.

Barber's role also will change significantly. Considered the best zone-coverage cornerback in the Tampa-Two era, Barber will be asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage in base formations to re-route receivers and disrupt timing. Bates said Barber will continue shifting inside to the slot in nickel sets, where his blitzing ability can be best utilized. Barber's 23 sacks are the most for a cornerback in NFL history.

The 34-year-old Barber, who survived an offseason purge of veterans that included Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Ike Hilliard, declined an interview request to talk about the transition.

"As much success as Ronde has had, it's definitely an adjustment," Bates said. "He has played some bump (coverage), but not like we run it. He's adjusting well. He's one of the better nickel defensive backs in the league. We've just got to see how far we can go.

"If we have to tweak (the defense) a little bit, we'll tweak it as far as what the players can do. We're not going to put them in something where they can't have success."

Three Bucs expected to benefit from the new defense are end Gaines Adams, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety-turned-linebacker Jermaine "Flip" Phillips. The Bucs hope Adams — a moderate disappointment since being the No. 4 overall pick in 2007 — can thrive like Jason Taylor, Elvis Dumervil and Adewale Ogunleye did as edge rushers under Bates. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Talib has ideal size, speed and athleticism to become a shutdown press-cover cornerback. And while the 230-pound Phillips was a defensive back in his first seven NFL seasons, Bates believes he can handle the adjustment to outside linebacker. That would allow Tampa Bay to get talented young safeties Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson on the field at the same time.

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All of these changes make the offseason especially important for Bates to install fundamentals. Asked when he expects players to know his system well enough to react instinctively, Bates said, "Before the start of the season, hopefully."

"It takes every bit (of time) in the classroom and on the field," he said. "You can't ever put a timetable on when the athleticism is going to take over and the thinking is limited. Some guys will pick it up quicker than others."

Here's something else the Bucs need to pick up: A new defensive nickname now that the Tampa-Two moniker is no longer apt.

"I don't know what they're going to call it now," Ruud said. "We'll just be the Buccaneers' defense I guess."

That's fine — as long as Bates and Co. prove the Bucs aren't settling for second-best by forsaking the Tampa-Two.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 8, 2009

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