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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Leverage Defensive Chess Pieces 

Head Coach Todd Bowles dishes on the team’s integral squad of do-it-all playmakers that invigorated the defense in 2023


The NFL is an intricate game of cat and mouse. In recent years, positionless defensive players have emerged to combat revolutionary offensive trends. From defenses responding to West Coast principles with zone coverage and blitzes, to defenses shifting to a hybrid man/zone format and nickel packages to accommodate the growing use of pass-heavy attacks featuring Spread and Air Raid philosophies, change is inevitable. Nickel, or a five-defensive-back-look, has become the new norm in the NFL to prevent isolation mismatches.

In the modern era, versatility is held at a premium. Tight ends that can run routes like a receiver and block like an offensive lineman. Running backs that can run and catch. As a result, do-it-all safeties and shifting defensive linemen have emerged on the scene to confuse offenses. Downhill linebackers and prototypical box safeties have become obsolete against the horizontal stretch.

For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a slew of chess pieces invigorated the defense in 2023.

"Right now, the chess pieces we have are [Antoine] Winfield, Lavonte [David], [Joe] Tryon-Shoyinka, and [Zyon] McCollum," said Head Coach Todd Bowles at the annual Owner's Meetings. "Those four guys can do a lot of jobs. Other people can do some jobs but those four guys in particular right now that last year you could see – Lavonte on the edge, back deep and you can see him up front. You can see Zyon at safety, at nickel corner and you can see Joe playing inside backer, three-technique and outside backer. You can see Winfield at nickel, backer, safety – those guys move around. You don't need all of them to be chess pieces. You just need a few to be chess pieces. If you have more, that is great, and you can use them."

All of the aforementioned names play a variety of roles on the field, keeping offenses off-balance.

Winfield Jr. put up a historical season in 2023, rallying the team. He earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors for his contributions in 2023 and amassed 122 tackles, 12 passes defensed, eight quarterback hits, 6.0 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and three interceptions last season – all of which established new career highs. Winfield Jr. became the first player since data became available in 1999 to finish a season with 100-plus tackles and at least three interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and sacks in a single season. He concluded the year with a share of the league lead in both forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, joining Haason Reddick (2022) as the only players to accomplish that feat since at least 2000. Winfield Jr. was also the lone defensive back since 2000 with 6.0-plus sacks and six-or-more forced fumbles in a season, and the lone defensive back with seven-or-more takeaways and 5.0-plus sacks. Among defensive backs in 2023, Winfield Jr. finished first in sacks (6.0), first in forced fumbles (six), first in fumble recoveries (four), tied for third in takeaways (seven) and third in quarterback hits (eight). He spearheaded the defensive attack with awareness/range in the post as a single-high safety, trigger to blitz and effective pursuit angles for open-field tackles.

David, one of the most distinguished players in Bucs' history, carved out a key role in the team securing their third straight NFC South crown in 2023. He led the team with 134 tackles and notched 4.5 sacks, his most in a season since 2016. David was the lone player in the NFL in 2023 with 100-plus tackles, 15-plus tackles for loss and 3.0-plus sacks. His 17 tackles for loss last season are the second-most in a single-season by a player age 33 or older since data became available in 2008. David rallied a defense that tied for sixth in the league in points allowed (19.1 per game) and allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards (95.3 per game). Whether collapsing the pocket, covering tight ends over the middle of the field, or outpacing rushers, David was proficient. The screen-sniffer continued his reign of dominance, elevating Todd Bowles' crew.

Tryon-Shoyinka, the club's 'Joker,' played 579 defensive snaps (12 game starts, 17 games played) and tallied 5.0 sacks, 45 tackles, seven tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits in 2023. The former first-round pick has the athleticism, size and play strength to be used interchangeably. Once tackles overset, Tryon-Shoyinka wins with inside leverage. He had 4.0 sacks in a rotational role as a rookie, then 4.0 again as a full-time starter in 2022 before accumulating 5.0 last year. Although the metrics may not paint the full picture, Tryon-Shoyinka makes his mark from various spots on the gridiron. Tryon-Shoyinka bolstered the defense whether as a decoy on fire zone blitzes or as a key component on twists.

"Joe [Tryon-Shoyinka] is a very unique player," stated Bowles. "He is not going to be the go-around-the-corner Shaq [Barrett] type of guy. Joe can move all along the line of scrimmage and help us in a lot of things. He is our linebacker, our defensive end, he is our three-tech, he is our part-time nickel and he is our part-time inside backer. He can come from a lot of areas, so he has a lot of jobs and is one of those chess pieces that I talked about. So, he is a different type of rusher. He is very athletic and can stunt and do a lot of different things. He is not just going to come and bull [rush] you and come around the corner. Do we think he can rush the passer? Yes. Do we think he has left some sacks out there? Yes. But he is making some great plays for us, and he has made some great plays for other people and that goes unnoticed because you do not see him at the finality of the play. We look for Joe to come back and do those things for us and to get better and better at what he is doing."

Zyon McCollum became a jack of all trades in the secondary, filling a variety of roles when needed in his second year. Due to his athleticism and blazing 4.33-speed, the Bucs' staff wanted to get McCollum on the field in whatever capacity they could in 2023. McCollum played 665 snaps at outside corner, 59 at slot corner and 31 at safety in 2023. He totaled 41 tackles, two forced fumbles and displayed his ability to mirror receivers out of his backpedal. That agility made McCollum an ideal fit as a gunner on the Bucs' special teams coverage units as a rookie. In Year Two as injuries piled up, McCollum was asked to take on an increased role. He worked to harness his speed and developed on the back end.

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