The first great Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, with its front seven centered around the likes of Lee Roy Selmon, David Logan, Richard Wood and Cecil Johnson, identified as a 3-4 scheme. That group led the NFL in total defense in 1979, led the team to three playoff berths in four years and eventually sent Selmon to the Hall of Fame.
The next transcendent Bucs defense rose in the late 1990s and won a Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season. The front seven of that group, built on the likes of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Shelton Quarles, identified as a 4-3 defense.
The split in Bucs history in terms of defensive identification, came in 1991. From 1976 through 1990, under Head Coaches John McKay, Leeman Bennett and Ray Perkins, the Bucs always fielded a starting lineup with three down linemen and four linebackers. Richard Williamson served as the interim head coach at the end of 1990 after Perkins was fired then stayed on in that job in 1991 and brought in Floyd Peters to be his defensive coordinator. Peters switched the Bucs to a 4-3 and every Bucs depth chart since then, over 28 seasons, has listed four down linemen and three linebackers. That stayed true through seven different head coaches, from Sam Wyche through Dirk Koetter.
Now the Buccaneers have a new staff led by Bruce Arians and with Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator. Bowles spent the last four seasons as the head coach of the Jets, and New York's depth charts were always of the 3-4 variety. Arians gave Bowles his first defensive coordinator job with Arizona Cardinals, and a very good Cardinals defense officially operated out of a 3-4 scheme in the two years before Bowles left for New York (and afterward, as well).
Could the Bucs be going back after nearly three decades as a 4-3 team? That depends.
What it depends upon is the Buccaneers players – what Arians, Bowles and the rest of Tampa Bay's new coaching staff learns about through film study and what they later discover on the practice field. That will eventually include some new faces on the roster after free agency and the draft. On Friday, Bowles met with the Bay area media for the first time, and what he said about the defense he would build in Tampa echoed what Arians had said in his own introductory press conference the day before.
“Again, what we’ll do is what our players do best," said Arians, when asked about what flavor of defense Bucs fans could expect to see. "Three-4, 4-3, some call it 'over' and 'under.' We call it different [things] – they still line up the same. [We're] not a two-gap team. We’re going to attack. As long as our players attack – in today’s NFL, you’re in nickel defense 70 percent of the time, so you’re playing a four-man line. We’ll have odd-man lines, we’ll have four-man lines. That’s just schematics to me."
It's true that most NFL defenses employ looks that operate like 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, and some teams that identify as 3-4 still present like a 4-3 in certain fronts. That said, there will be a new Buccaneer depth chart printed and published at some point – probably not until August – and it will list either three or four defensive linemen and either three or four linebackers. It may not be until that point until a certain label can be applied to the Buccaneers' defense. And it appears the final answer will develop over time.
"I’ve coached half of my career in a 4-3, the other half in a 3-4," said Bowles. "I think you coach according to what kind of players you have and what kind of guys you can put where. We’re going to be versatile, regardless. As I watch the tape and watch the film, we’ll morph into one of those things, if not both of them, but we need to be versatile, regardless."
What is clear is that the Arians/Bowles defense will be aggressive. Both coaches used the word "attacking" and there will likely be a variety of blitzes, or looks that appear to be extra-man pass-rushes even if they aren't in the end. Over those 2013-14 seasons combined, with Arians and Bowles in Arizona, the Cardinals posted the fifth most interceptions and the 12th-most sacks and finished in the top 10 in takeaways, opponent passer rating and third down conversion rate. That all added up to the NFL's fifth-best scoring defense.
That was definitely an aggressive defense, but even that had to do with the personnel on hand, just as it will for Bowles and Arians in Tampa this year.
"We blitzed quite a bit at that time," said Bowles of the 2013-14 Cardinals. "Most of it was the illusions of pressure, as opposed to pressure itself. A lot of guys came free. We had some good athletes on that team and they made me look good."
The Buccaneers certainly have some talent on defense as well, including star linebacker Lavonte David and a trio of linemen who recorded six or more sacks in 2018 (Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib and Gerald McCoy). As a whole, though, that group struggled for much of the year and finished the season ranked 31st in points allowed. That's what Bowles and the rest of the defensive staff will be trying to fix in 2019 – the Cardinals improved from 17th in scoring in 2012 to seventh in Bowles' first year – and he conceded on Friday that there is a lot of hard work ahead in that regard. That work begins with evaluation of the roster, the results of which will eventually lead to the best scheme to utilize the talents on hand. We may just not know what to call it until next summer.