Yesterday we covered 6 questions that Greg Schiano must address at the beginning of his tenure with the Bucs. We talked about the biggest issue, bar none. We talked about four other issues on offense and the biggest defensive question too.
Now let’s round out this series by addressing four more issues that face Greg Schiano on the defensive side of the ball. We already mentioned that, due to his sizable contract, getting Gerald McCoy on track needs to be prority number one, but there are several more issues that are almost as pressing. Questions about the secondary, the linebacking corps and the scheme remain.
Let’s jump in.
1.) What do you do with Aqib Talib?
This question feels familiar. Aqib Talib is one of the most aggravating players on the roster. When healthy and properly motivated he can be a top-tier NFL corner. Two years ago, despite missing the final five games the NFL alumni association still deigned Talib the NFL’s top corner that season.
Unfortunately, that was the last high point Talib has had lately. In March he was arrested for an incident involving a firearm and a potentially unlawful discharge. The trial will be held this off-season and so far the Bucs have taken a wait-and-see approach. That may be about to change.
Greg Schiano is a discipline-minded head coach who expects players to be willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Guys who go out and hurt the organization in the off-season, who act out, who break rules or who cannot be depended on are unlikely to hang around long in Tampa. I wouldn’t be shocked if Greg Schiano pulls the plug on Aqib Talib. It’s going to be important for Schiano to drop the hammer quickly, and Talib might be just the right guy to send a message.
Personally, I go back and forth on what to do with the talented Jayhawk corner. On one hand he’s a phenomenal athlete, and can be lock-down for the Buccaneers if they give him a chance to be. I don’t think, despite some of his success, that Talib has ever been used in a defense that catered to his abilities. Asking him to hang out in the flat or drop back and play zone are both skill sets Talib has, but he’s best suited paired up against the other team’s best receiver in man coverage for most of the afternoon. If Schiano wanted to use him right, he could have a breakout season for the Bucs.
But on the other hand, you can’t count on Talib. As harsh as that sounds, he’s got a history that dates back far before this gun incident took place. He’s had issues in Tampa and back at Kansas. It would be nice to believe he’s turned a corner, but between his history of problems and his injury history, you really have to be willing to place a lot of faith there to give him another year.
2.) How do you fix the run defense?
This kind of ties into the Gerald McCoy issue, and a lot of things will improve as the Buccaneers young defensive ends come into their own, but the fact still remains the Buccaneers’ defensive line is an absolute sieve right now. Dead last against the run, dead last in points allowed and dead last in sacks.
That simply cannot happen, not when you’ve spent two firsts and two seconds in the last two years addressing that unit. Greg Schiano must get the line on track, he needs to identify the players that are worth building around and work with Mark Dominik to add depth and potentially another starter to the line. 23 sacks is unacceptable, 156 rushing yards allowed per game is unacceptable. The line really needs to kick it in to gear.
One of the bigger questions facing Schiano on the line is Da’Quan Bowers. Bowers, has massive potential but questions about his knee will always be an issue. Schiano has to determine the best way to use Bowers, is he going to become a pass-rush specialist, can he play every down on the edge? Unfortunately, because of the wear and tear on that knee, Bowers is never going to be a great choice to try and slide inside on passing downs, but he could still become an exceptional edge rusher.
Adrian Clayborn is fine, he needs to develop from a technique standpoint but his size, strength and motor are all NFL caliber, he’s the only guy on that unit I’m comfortable with moving forward. Beyond that, Schiano has a lot of questions to answer.
3.) How do you get an impact out of the linebackers?
It would be a little bit errant to only blame the line for the defensive woes. The Bucs’ linebackers were not good last year either. Everyone drank the Mason Foster Cool-Aid in the preseason and raved why he was an improvement over Barrett Ruud. Here’s an interesting tidbit: that’s wrong. The Bucs defense was far worse with Mason Foster leading it than with Barrett Ruud, that’s not even debatable.
Foster has a very good nose for the ball, and he makes some plays, the issue is not his ability. The issue is his leadership and ability to help organize the defense were both lacking last season. Oftentimes on plays where Barrett Ruud was proactive in lining up the front four and making adjustments, Foster wasn’t. That allowed the Bucs to lose on tactics frequently last season, that’s partially on the coaching but for all his faults, that didn’t happen under Ruud with the same coaches calling the plays the year before either. The Bucs started losing on tactics frequently only when Barrett Ruud left.
No play goes well when you’re beat on tactics. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how athletic, if you lose off the snap on tactics you are done in the NFL.
I’m not blaming Foster for this and I do think he’s a very good prospect, but maybe it was dumb to ask a rookie to lead a defense that young. Either way the play at middle linebacker declined last season. That’s not opinion, that’s in the game film. The athleticism may not have diminished, but the mental side sure did. They may be equivalent once the ball is snapped in terms of making tackles, but pre-snap it’s not even close.
That being said Foster was still the team’s best linebacker.
Quincy Black was a bad re-signing and Geno Hayes is likely done in Tampa (he’s a free agent). As for impact from the linebackers, there’s not much to hang your hat on last year on the Bucs defense. Schiano needs to address this issue. Likely the Bucs will need to draft a young player to develop in the early to mid rounds (I’ll have an entire post on this later this week). I personally am intrigued by Dekoda Watson for what he brings to the field from an athletic standpoint. A linebacker that is the gunner on punt coverage represents an interesting prospect, but Watson still needs to develop quite a bit himself.
More likely, this is where Schiano will need to make a splash in free agency. I’m not advocating for him specifically, but a player like Bart Scott would be what the Bucs need. Not Scott himself (though he is likely to be available), but that sort of player. Last year there were no leaders on the Bucs defense. Ronde Barber is close, but he’s not loud enough to inspire an entire defense on his own. The Bucs need to go out and get a fiery, veteran linebacker that will lead by word and example. Bring in someone with a reputation for nastiness and a good pedigree.
I know the stated philosophy is to draft, but for now it may be better to add a fiery leader in free agency.
4.) Is it time to retire the Tampa 2?
The Tampa 2 is perhaps the most famous defense of the last couple decades. Though it didn’t actually start in Tampa, Tony Dungy made it famous there and then took it to Indianapolis. Along the way, it spread league-wide. Now almost every team runs some variation of the Tampa 2.
Unfortunately, that also means that the defense is becoming outmoded. Offenses have had decades to attack it and exploit its weaknesses. At this point, running a Tampa 2 requires a phenomenally athletic defense because the tactics of the scheme are public information. That’s why it may be good for the Buccaneers to move to another defense.
I’ve personally grown very fond of the various 3-4 defenses that are being proliferated around football. The key component is a nose tackle that can hold at the point of attack and fight off the double-team (something the Bucs don’t currently have), but it allows a lot more freedom to dial up pressure and come after the quarterback, while also letting you disguise your coverage at the line. Neither of which the Bucs did well last year.
Go back and watch some game-film from last season. It doesn’t even matter what game, just watch the defense pre-snap and then pay attention to how they move when the play starts. The pattern you’ll notice, more often than not, is that the defense does exactly what you expect it to do pre-snap. They’re not hiding their coverage, disguising their pressure or doing anything to toss the offense off, they’re lining up and playing. Part of that is coaching, but part of that is also scheme.
Greg Schiano is going to need to decide what kind of scheme he wants to run in Tampa. Despite my appreciation of the 3-4, I have a feeling the 4-3 alignment stays, but it will be up to Schiano to design a defense that lets the Bucs dial up pressure and mix up their looks better than they have over the past couple of years.
Like I said, if you want to run the Tampa 2, you need great athletes that can win their match-ups off the snap. It worked when Warren Sapp was a dominant defensive tackle, because he could tell you he was stunting pre-play and still beat a double team off the snap. It didn’t matter on passing downs you knew where both safeties would be before the drop-back because the team was good enough to telegraph its playcall and still beat you.
That’s clearly no longer the case. So now it will be up to Schiano to draw up a more inventive defense to try and put these guys in a better position to succeed.