Sharing a practice field with the Jaguars in Jacksonville last week gave Tampa Bay Buccaneers players a chance to work against unfamiliar opponents. Inviting the Cleveland Browns to Tampa for more of the same this week will give the Buccaneers some valuable work against a whole different scheme.
That will be true on both sides of the line during the two joint Bucs-Browns practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, but more so for Tampa Bay's offense, which will test itself against Cleveland's 3-4 base defense. The Buccaneers' defense, meanwhile, should get at least a few opportunities to defend the zone-read.
The Browns present the only 3-4 defense on Tampa Bay's preseason schedule, which was one of the reasons that Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter was eager to work out an extended week with Hue Jackson's squad. Once the regular season arrives, the Buccaneers' offense is going to be all too familiar with the 3-4.
"Cleveland is a 3-4 defense and we're going to see like eight 3-4 teams over the course of the year, so two extra days of working against a 3-4 are huge and then they're a zone-read team on offense," said Koetter. "That's not all they do, but over the first couple of games they've probably averaged, I'll say, six or seven zone-read plays a game where the first two teams [we played], not so much. And we need to see zone-read for down the road when we play teams like San Francisco and Seattle and Carolina, of course. Each team is a little bit different, but just playing and working against different guys is good."
The outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are typically pass-rushers like Von Miller and Tamba Hali (both of whom are on the Bucs' schedule this year). Figuring out how many players are coming after the quarterback and where they are coming from are the unfamiliar challenges of playing against that scheme. The Browns will show the Buccaneers a lot of different looks this week, which is helpful.
"One thing Cleveland does that makes it challenging is they'll mix back and forth," said Koetter. "Even within a series, they'll switch back between even and odd. So that's one of the problems a 3-4 presents for an offense, is they make you be on top of your communication. You're not always blocking the same rules. Typically the outside linebackers in 3-4 are really just big defensive ends, so in pass protection you're trying to keep your backs from not having to block those guys. You want to make your calls so that your linemen are blocking those outside 'backers and your backs are responsible for the inside guys.
- The Buccaneers began the week with a roster move on Monday morning, bringing in rookie offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson to replace another rookie blocker, Kelby Johnson. They also made one more tweak to the roster before the day was up.
In the afternoon, the team announced the waiver of rookie linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, an undrafted free agent signed out of Auburn on May 2. McKinzy played in Saturday's game in Jacksonville after sitting out the preseason opener but did not record any statistics.
The Buccaneers did not announce a corresponding move to McKinzy's waiver, which left the camp roster sitting at 89 players at the end of Monday. Generally, open roster spots are filled before the next practice, and the Bucs may choose to do exactly that on Tuesday morning. Alternately, with a round of cuts coming up after Friday's game, the team may choose not to add another player before that reduction to 75.
- If preseason wins and losses are ultimately not very meaningful, then the statistics that come from those games are another order lower of importance. That grain of salt taken, the league-wide stats from the first two preseason weeks back up the naked-eye assessment that Tampa Bay's defense appears to be significantly improved in 2016.
In particular, Tampa Bay's pass defense has been stout, allowing a league-low 112.5 yards per game and forcing opposing quarterbacks to compile a combined passer rating of 34.7. Notably, the Bucs have allowed a completion rate of 45.6%; that won't be duplicated in the regular season, of course, but any significant improvement over last year's opposing completion percentage of 70.0 would be welcome.
Noting once again that these are preseason statistics, which will be wiped away in about two weeks, here are other encouraging statistical signs for the Bucs' defense thus far:
- Tampa Bay ranks second in overall net yards allowed per game, at 198.0.
- The 3.3 yards the Buccaneers have allowed per play this summer is the lowest in the NFL.
- In addition to leading the NFL in net passing yards allowed per game, the Bucs are also #1 in net passing yards allowed per play, as well as second in interceptions per pass attempt.
- The Bucs have allowed 12.0 first downs per game, third-best in the league.
- Tampa Bay's defense has allowed just 2.60 yards per play on first down, the lowest mark in the NFL in that category. The league average is 5.02.
Tampa Bay's starting defense has been on the field for about 40 of the snaps so far, which is another reason to temper one's excitement over those numbers. Nevertheless, it is a fine start for a defense that has high expectations in 2016 after a difficult 2015 campaign.