Jekyll and Hyde: Why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Linebackers Were the Best (and Worst) Part of the 2012 Defense


Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneer defense was the one of the most unique defenses in the history of the league, with such dominant run defense and awful pass defense. So as we continue our season in review and take a look at the linebackers, it’s quickly obvious that they were both a part of the problem, and the solution. Linebackers are almost always part of the blame or praise for any given play, that’s the nature of being the middle man in the defensive scheme. Much like the quarterback on offense, the linebacker on defense is the pivot point on which the entire defense swings. So let’s examine how the Buccaneers’ linebackers fared in 2012, and why they were such a volatile part of the Tampa Bay defense.

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The run defense for Tampa Bay was absolutely fantastic in 2012. It doesn’t matter what statistics or metrics you use to evaluate it, the run defense was stifling and forced teams to change their gameplans. The tone for the season was set when the Buccaneer defense absolutely dominated the Panther’s running game week one, holding the Cats to 10 rushing yards on 13 attempts. The rest of the season would continue in a similar fashion, earning excellent ratings from almost every expert and scouting service. FootballOutsiders DVOA statistic, which determines the value of every play and compares the amount of value a team is able to produce as it compares to the average, showed the Buccaneers’ run defense holding opposing defenses below the average value in all but 2 weeks, and posting a total that ranked 3rd in the NFL for the season.

It was the linebackers who contributed heavily to this success, particularly the play of Lavonte David. Pro Football Focus scouts and charts the NFL season, and for David’s statistics, they recorded that he played against the run for 348 snaps, and made 51 run stops, which is 8 more than anyone else that played outside linebacker in a 4-3, and the only linebacker at any position with more stops was Derrick Johnson from Kansas City. Stops are defined by PFF as preventing the other team from achieving an amount of yards that would be considered a success based on the down and distance. The most interesting point to note is that because teams passed against the Buccaneers so often, and David played against fewer running plays, his Run Stop Percentage was through the roof. Among outside linebackers, no other player posted a Run Stop Percentage higher than 11.7 percent. The average player had a percentage in the 5 or 6 percent range. Lavonte David posted a 14.7% run stop percentage, meaning that on almost 15% of the run plays he faced, he single-handedly stopped the other team from achieving success.

Mason Foster contributed as well, posting a respectable 10.6% run stop percentage. So a quarter of the run plays that were attempted against Lavonte David and Mason Foster were stopped before being considered successful. In other words, teams did not want to run against the Buccaneers.

They decided to pass. And passing was bad news for Tampa Bay in 2012.

The linebackers were particularly prone to the play action pass. Let’s start this section off with a bit of visual assistance.

Above is a defensive formation against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. It’s a pretty compact formation for Washington, and the Buccaneer defense is likewise compact. The play has just started, and the players are reacting to what appears to be a running play. The Redskins know that the play-action pass is a strong part of their arsenal, and in this situation, it worked to perfection. Take a look at this play just seconds more into it’s development.

The run defense was there, had it been a run play. But just like the rest of the season for the Buccaneers, the fact that it wasn’t a run play meant the Buccaneers were fish out of water. A large portion of the Buccaneer defense is left outside the hashes away from the play as RGIII rolls to his right and finds an open Pierre Garcon, who has an easy path over the middle with no linebackers available in coverage.

The worst part about this play is… the linebackers hadn’t learned their lesson. Here is a play from just a few minutes earlier in the same game:

Once again, fairly compact set up for the Redskins, and the Buccaneers are set up to match. Ronde has come up to replace a linebacker. So what happens next?

The play action results in a logjam at the line of scrimmage, with linebackers defending run gaps that aren’t even there. Barber has hardly moved at all, because he didn’t blitz thanks to the play action. Griffin is able to drop the ball over the middle to the fullback and get a big gain.

The linebackers would be victimized by play action quite often, resulting in plenty of space over the middle of the field for receivers to work. With Mark Barron often stuck deeper as a safety, and the corners in man-to-man coverage, the hole in coverage over the middle was exploited often. The Eagles’ Nick Foles abused the Buccaneers over the middle late in the disappointing loss in 2012, and he wasn’t alone. As much as fans remember the deep ball beating the Buccaneer defense from time to time, the intermediate passes they allowed might have been the real downfall for the team.

Lavonte David graded out well in regards to his ability to cover opponents, but it was the other linebackers who were found lacking in pass coverage. Mason Foster and Qunicy Black both posted pass coverage scores in the negatives according to Pro Football Focus’ ratings, allowing a large amount of catches for the players they were responsible for covering. In fact, Mark Barron was the only regular player on defense who graded out worse than Black and Foster in pass coverage.

So how does the unit as a whole grade out? It’s really difficult to say. Lavonte David was brilliant, Mason Foster was somewhat disappointing, and the strongside linebacker position was not used often, especially after Quincy Black was injured. So how do you assign a grade to a situation like this? You take the easy road:

Lavonte David Final Grade: A-

Other Linebackers Final Grade: D+

*Images are courtesy of the NFL and Fox Sports via the NFL Game Rewind Application.