When Todd Bowles joined Bruce Arians' new Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff as the defensive coordinator in 2019, the team technically began its base defense as a 3-4. That led to the reclassification of some players on the roster and depth chart, with some defensive ends now listed as outside linebackers, with bigger ends and tackles called defensive linemen.
It's that latter group we're concerned with today, with the look at outside linebackers coming later in the week. And the Buccaneers' down linemen certainly deserve a spotlight of their own after dominating in relatively quiet fashion in 2019.
The Buccaneers led the NFL in rush defense, which started directly with the block-eaters up front. Tampa Bay also had 47 sacks, and while the pass-rush numbers for the down linemen were relatively modest, all involved acknowledged that their presence created one-on-one opportunities on the edge. The key to all this was pairing one young, on-the-rise big man with one of the NFL's best defensive tackles of the last decade.
That would be Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, in order, and they give the Bucs another dynamic duo along the lines of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. That is not meant to exclude Will Gholston, the other starting defensive lineman and another proven run-stopper, but when the Bucs went to sub packages it was Vea and Suh who were most likely to stay on the field.
Keeping that front wall solid was one of the Buccaneers' top priorities heading into the 2020 offseason and that was accomplished with one key signing. Meanwhile, Bowles recently suggested that Vea would see his snap count rise noticeably in 2020 for the second year in a row. The Buccaneers feel they have a star in the making in their 2018 first-round pick, and it is certainly helping to have veterans like Suh and Gholston to help him reach his potential.
Over a six-week period in May and June, we will be taking a close look at each position on the depth chart now that the draft and most of free agency are complete. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover. Today we begin our tour of the defensive side of the ball with the men up front.
Roster Review Schedule:
· Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
· Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
· Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
· Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
· Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
· Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
· Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
· Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
· Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
· Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
· Monday, June 22: Safeties
· Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
The Buccaneers began reworking their interior line even before the arrivals of Arians and Bowles. After the addition of Chris Baker didn't work out in 2017, the Bucs signed Beau Allen in 2018 free agency and then drafted Vea with the 12th overall pick. Vea suffered a calf injury very early in training camp and missed a good amount of time, which led to a slow start to his rookie season but he came on strong at the end.
Last offseason, with the new staff in place, the Buccaneers elected to release Gerald McCoy following his ninth year with the team, then quickly used the open spot to sign Suh. The former second-overall pick (one spot ahead of McCoy in 2010), Suh had spent one year with the Rams and played in a Super Bowl after longer stints with Detroit and Miami. Gholston, meanwhile, proved to be a very good fit for Bowles' new defense. Suh, Gholston and Vea combined to play nearly 2,200 defensive snaps while Allen was on the field about 20% of the time and Rakeem Nunez-Roches about 25% of the time.
Thus, the job of keeping the middle of the defense intact essentially came down to signing Suh, who was coming off his second straight one-year contract after leaving Miami. That was clearly a priority for the Buccaneers but it was complicated by the possibly competing desire to retain outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Bucs placed their franchise tag on Barrett and got a new deal done with Pierre-Paul just before the start of free agency but Suh actually hit the open market before agreeing to yet another one-year deal in late March. Allen did sign with New England in free agency but the Bucs felt as if they had accomplished their goals.
"Yeah, I wanted the entire defense, if we could, to stay together," said Arians. "They played so well together; each piece of the puzzle knew each other. Suh was a big, big part of it obviously – not as much in the sack game as much as his interior pressure and the great job he did against the run. We were number one against the run in the league last year and a lot of it was because of him and Vita."
· William Gholston…Entering fourth year of five-year deal signed in 2017; Played in 16 games and started eight in 2019, contributing 38 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks to top-ranked run defense
· Jeremiah Ledbetter…Re-signed for 2020 after finishing 2019 on practice squad; Played in 16 games for Detroit in 2017 and one for Bucs in 2018
· Rakeem Nunez-Roches…Signed new one-year contract shortly after becoming an unrestricted free agent in March; Appeared in every game in 2019 and played roughly 25% of snaps
· Patrick O'Connor…Promoted from practice squad in Week Four on contract that includes 2020; Played 27 defensive snaps over eight games
· Ndamukong Suh…Re-signed new one-year contract after becoming an unrestricted free agent in March; Started all 16 games and recorded 41 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 14 QB pressures
· Vita Vea…Heading into third year of original rookie contract; Started all 16 games and contributed 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 12 QB pressures; also caught a one-yard touchdown pass
· Beau Allen…Signed with New England as an unrestricted free agent in March; Recorded 10 tackles, 0.5 sacks and two tackles for loss for Bucs in 2019
· Khalil Davis…Drafted in the sixth round out of Nebraska; Named 'Huskers Defensive Linemen of the Year in 2018 and 2019 while producing 11.0 sacks and 26 tackles for loss
· Benning Potoa'e…Signed as undrafted free agent out of Washington; Notched 30 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2019
Had the Buccaneers not been able to re-sign Suh, they would have had to make some more major changes up front, which could have involved a high draft pick or another veteran addition. Now they can simply build on what went so well in 2019, and that's particularly important given how truncated the offseason will end up being in 2020 due to the quarantine efforts.
"With the kind of year we're having right now I think it's very important to have chemistry and continuity," said Bowles. "Obviously we've got to continue to communicate and get back together on the field and not do everything by Zoom or virtually. But to have everybody back from the same defense that ended last year is important from a communication and continuity standpoint.
In addition, any newcomer, and especially a rookie, would be well behind at this point in any effort to learn a major role on the Bucs' line. While the Buccaneers have done their best to help the players with a virtual offseason, that work doesn't replace all the practice reps that have been lost. And isolation is tougher on some position groups than others; quarterbacks and receivers can get together to run routes if they live nearby but there isn't an equivalent option for linemen.
"It's a little harder for the defense, not having seen them, not knowing what they're doing other than working out," said Bowles. "For the D-Linemen, it's hard for people – you can have a gym in your home but it's hard to have bags as far as running drills. So really, from a defensive line, linebacker standpoint all you can do is work out and watch tape."
The only players with that steep hill still to climb are Khalil Davis and Benning Potoa'e, the rookies added in the draft and undrafted free agency, respectively, and the only true newcomers on the line. Between the practice squad and the active roster, Patrick O'Connor was with the team for the entire 2019 season, while Ledbetter was on the practice squad for the last 10 weeks. Davis is an active lineman who could potentially provide some disruptive snaps in the middle if he can get acclimated quickly enough. If he doesn't carve out a role of much significance, the team does have some options to make up for Allen's snaps in O'Connor and Ledbetter.
As noted above, the Buccaneers featured the NFL's best run defense in 2019, and the 73.8 yards per game they allowed also represented a new franchise single-season record. The Bucs' average of 3.26 yards given up per carry was also the NFL's best mark.
The Bucs' 47 sacks of opposing quarterbacks was the second-most they've had in a season but the defense only ranked in the middle of the pack in sacks per pass play. Suh and Vea each contributed 2.5 sacks and Gholston had one, though those three also combined for 33 quarterback hits. Suh tied for the team lead with four fumble recoveries, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Tampa Bay's most common defensive grouping in 2019 was a nickel package, with a fifth defensive back replacing one of the three down linemen and creating a four-man front. As noted above, Suh and Vea were the two most likely to stay on the field in such packages. The Bucs used this grouping on 41.4% of their plays. The next most common arrangement had the fifth defensive back replacing one of the outside linebackers, which created essentially the same look; that was used on 20.6% of the snaps. Tampa Bay was only in the base defense it lists on its official depth chart on 16.5% of plays.
Three Key Questions:
· How much more will Vita Vea play and where will those snaps come from?
Vea played almost exactly two-thirds of the Buccaneers defensive snaps in his second season. Playing in all 16 games increased his playing time over his rookie season, of course, but he also got a larger share of the snaps on a per-game basis. If Bowles wants his rising third-year player on the field more, that would presumably mean a bigger piece of the pie in nickel defenses, particularly the grouping with only two down linemen. In 2019, Vea was on the field for 71.8% of the Bucs snaps in base, 66.0% of the plays in the nickel with three down linemen and 64.6% of the plays in the nickel with two down linemen, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats. He had 1.5 of his 2.5 sacks in that last group, but of course that's to be expected as those are more likely to come against passing plays. If Vea continues to develop as a pass-rusher up the middle, the Bucs may not to spell him as often with substitutes like Nunez-Roches or one of the other young players.
· Can Tampa Bay repeat as the league's best run defense?
Strictly from a personnel and coaching standpoint, there's no reason why the Buccaneers should expect worse results from their defense in 2020. With the only losses to the defense being Allen and outside linebacker Carl Nassib, both reserves, and with the players' understanding of Bowles' scheme greater than they were a year ago, the Bucs look on paper to have the makings of the same strong run defense. The thing is defensive stats can be fickle from year to year, especially in run defense. The Buccaneers ranked first in that category in 2012 and then 15th the next year, without a change in the coaching staff. They were 11th in 2015 but then dropped to 22nd in 2016, though in that case the coaching staff did turn over. The 2012-13 transition was essentially a defense finding more balance; the Bucs were first against the run but last against the pass in the former year, then 15th and 17th in the latter year. Tampa Bay's pass defense improved significantly in the second half of 2019 and was one of the league's best at disrupting passes during that time. Opposing teams might not find it as inviting to air it out against the Buccaneers in 2020.
· Will there be more of an inside pass-rush in 2020?
Suh, Vea and Gholston combined for 7.0 sacks in 2019, though it's worth repeating that the attention they demanded from blockers was good for the team's prolific edge rushers. While the Bucs were able to keep Barrett and Pierre-Paul, who combined for 28 of the team's 47 sacks, there isn't much experienced depth behind those two, and while second-year man Anthony Nelson will probably figure more prominently in the pass rush there are no sure-fire pass-rushers behind the two starters. To maintain or improve their pressure on opposing QBs, the Bucs may need a bigger contribution from the interior linemen in 2020.