New coach Lovie Smith makes no bones about it: He's a Tampa Two adherent. Even though that's the same defensive scheme that his predecessor, Greg Schiano, was censured for running, Smith is making it his foundation. And Bucs fans should be excited about that.
The Tampa Two—concocted in its modern form 18 years ago by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, with Smith serving as their linebackers coach—is the same as a traditional Cover Two zone scheme, but with one difference: The middle linebacker, instead of defending one of the shallow underneath zones, drops back into coverage—as deep as the most interior receiving target. (In Chicago, where Smith last coached, this was often Brian Urlacher; here it will be the less gifted but gradually improving Mason Foster.) The Tampa Two requires outstanding movement skills among the linebackers because it leaves a larger zone void underneath, and it demands that outside 'backers have the speed to refill that void on runs and shorter passes.
While Smith will adhere to his Tampa Two principles, he won't be held prisoner by them. As is true with any scheme, opponents have figured out how to exploit the Tampa Two. Offenses use more unbalanced spreads these days, and in those alignments the Tampa Two's natural and potent symmetry disappears. For that reason it's more accurate to call Smith's scheme today not a Tampa Two but a 4--3 zone, with the zones being adapted to modern offenses. But just as in an outright Tampa Two, the variety of straightforward zone concepts in Smith's 4--3 still require speed and fine-tuned fundamentals, especially up front.
As anyone who followed Smith in his nine seasons with the Bears knows, generating pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers is vital in a 4--3 zone. That used to mean that a defense needed four studs who could win battles alone by attacking straight ahead. But that has evolved too; Smith will now rely on more tandem pass-rushing concepts that are built on teamwork and deception. The Bucs, in fact, were superb with this type of attacking under Schiano, who used a variety of twists and stunts.
Executing these twists and stunts requires a versatile type of defender, and so Smith and new GM Jason Licht went out and spent a guaranteed $24 million on Bengals end Michael Johnson, who, aside from his 11½-sack campaign in 2012, has averaged just 3[superscript .75] sacks over his five-year career. Johnson is not a certifiable edge burner, but he is a sensationally supple athlete who can add dimension to Tampa's pass rush. He'll make a great pairing for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has blossomed into a gap-shooting star after being taken with the No. 3 pick out of Oklahoma four years ago.
Don't be surprised if McCoy regularly positions himself on the same side as Johnson after lining up next to Adrian Clayborn last year. Clayborn is a solid puzzle piece in his own right, possessing bull-rushing aptitude and just enough redirect agility to thrive in stunts and line slants. Filling out the base 4--3 will be Akeem Spence, an athletic second-year nose-shade tackle. And in nickel it will be Clinton McDonald, who emerged as a superb gap shooter last year in Seattle.
One reason the Tampa Two has dwindled in popularity is that, being a tightly structured zone scheme, it does not incorporate many blitzes, which generally require man-to-man coverage. When Smith was saddled with a mediocre D-line in his final year with the Bears, he strayed from some of his usual zone tactics and infused his pass rush with a blitzer or two. With the skill along Tampa's four-man line, he won't have to do that—though, given his roster, he could be tempted. Budding superstar linebacker Lavonte David had seven sacks last season, and fellow outside 'backer Jonathan Casillas is in the NFL largely because of his blitzing ferocity.
If anything, it will be a pair of zone corners, tailor-made for Smith's scheme, that keep the coach true to his 4--3 zone. On one side Alterraun Verner, formerly of the Titans, is a rising read-and-jump defender of passing lanes. On the other, 2013 second-round pick Johnthan Banks is a somewhat stiff athlete but an uncommonly precocious field reader.
With playmakers at all three levels, this defense has a chance to be great, giving the Bucs a good chance to become the seventh team in the NFC South's 13-year history to leap from fourth place to first in one year. And to Smith's delight, they can do it using his old, beloved scheme.
2013 Record: 4--12
ATL THUR [AWAY]
It may seem odd that Mike Glennon was hardly even considered for Tampa's starting job. Despite signs that the 2013 third-rounder was developing into a classic pocket passer, the new regime signed the Bears' Josh McCown to a two-year, $10 million deal at the onset of free agency and promptly named him the starter. Perhaps this was the thinking: With a talented D, potent weapons at receiver and running back, and a rising left tackle in Anthony Collins, this team can bounce back from 4--12 and compete for a playoff spot right now, as long as there's dependability at quarterback. Why roll the dice with a 24-year-old who had a 4--9 record as a starter, who ranked 21st in passer rating last year and who may not grasp the offense right away? McCown, 35, has experience in a wealth of systems, and he proved in Chicago that he can consistently—and accurately—get the ball out of his hands within the timing and confines of a play design. That's enough for coach Lovie Smith and coordinator Jeff Tedford, and it's the Bucs' best bet at an instant turnaround.
THE CASE FOR
Running back Doug Martin
The first-rounder from Boise State exploded on the scene in 2012 with 1,454 rushing yards, fifth among all backs. But last season Martin was shelved after a Week 7 tear of his left labrum, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Bucs were winless at that point; any carries he accumulated from there on would only have put wasted mileage on his odometer. Conscious of that count, new coordinator Jeff Tedford talked this off-season about splitting Martin's load with third-round rookie Charles Sims (West Virginia) and last year's sixth-rounder, Mike James. Then both suffered crushing injuries in August, leaving Martin as the workhorse. That's fine. Martin's a viable pass catcher; he'll be effective on third down. On first and second down he offers superb short-area explosiveness, good patience, and quickness to and through the hole. With a veteran like Josh McCown under center, two willowy dynamos at receiver in Vincent Jackson and first-round rookie Mike Evans (Texas A&M), plus meaty second-round rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington), Martin is part of an offense that is loaded with playmaking potential.
GARY BOGDON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DT GERALD MCCOY
PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP