Over the next four months, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff has to figure out how to shrink the team's depth chart, reducing a bloated 90-man diagram to just 53 players for the regular season. What that depth chart loses in breadth, however, it may gain in length, if Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith gets his way.
Okay, Smith isn't really advocating a longer official depth chart with additional starting positions. There can be only 11 men on the field for the first snap of the game, and thus 11 men will be designated as starters. What that sheet of paper indicates, however, will not necessarily reflect how Smith sees his personnel, or how Buccaneer defenders view their roles on Sundays.
"What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to put together a defense that doesn’t have 11 starters," said Smith, who is in his first year as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator after a seven-year run as the Falcons' head coach. "We’re trying to have somewhere between 15 and 16 guys that we consider starters on our defense. It’s a long season."
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Since arriving in Tampa in January, Smith has been working to install his defense, first getting his staff on the same page and then, once the players returned in April, working with his assistants to translate the playbook to his new charges. Part of that process has been reviewing what has worked for him in previous stops in Baltimore, Jacksonville and Atlanta. That review has taken Smith back as far as 1999 and has reminded him how the game has evolved over the last decade and a half.
Smith's approach has evolved with the game, and that includes more variety, which gets more players involved and emphasizes versatility, especially along the defensive line.
"The game is really changing," said Smith. "It’s very interesting. I was looking back at some stuff about two weeks ago, looking, at what we did in 2000 in terms of the number of base snaps and the number of sub snaps, and it has completely changed. In 2000 in Baltimore, about 30 percent of our plays were in sub defense and now its 65 percent.
"So, you've got to have guys that can rush inside and a lot of our defensive ends – I think – in our sub package will be able to move down inside and that’s the thing that we’re looking for. We’re looking for as much flexibility that we possibly can. To be able to scheme against our opponents, to be able to be prepared for injuries because they are going to happen, so you have to have multiple guys prepared at different positions."
This approach helps to explain how the Buccaneers are going to find a way to utilize the edge-rush help they've added in free agency and the draft, along with the returning players from last year's roster. One of the team's most important additions in free agency was defensive end Robert Ayers, who had nine sacks for the Giants last year. The Bucs then used the 39th overall pick in the NFL Draft to nab Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence, considered by some to be the best pure pass-rusher in the field. The team's most common end starters from last year, Jacquies Smith and William Gholston both return and could be entering the primes of their careers.
So who starts, and where? That's really a less important consideration than snap counts and sub packages. Spence, for instance, could make a significant impact as a rookie without nominally being a starter.
"You’re going to have guys playing in different packages and we’ve got a plan for Noah in terms of bringing him along. I was very impressed with his football intelligence in the rookie mini-camp and what he’s done this week. Again, flexibility is going to be the thing that is most important for us. He’s your prototypical – size-wise – right defensive end when you start talking about where he’s going to line up. With the schemes we’re talking about doing, he’s going to have the ability to line on both sides of the ball."
The Buccaneers knew they were getting a versatile player when they added Ayers, who saw time at defensive tackle for the Giants in pass-rushing situations and fared well. Gholston has the size to do the same thing, as does reserve end George Johnson. Given that the team's overall depth at defensive tackle is fairly shallow – Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence are the only experienced NFL starters – it seems quite likely that some of the ends will be splitting time on the inside this year. Exactly which ones and how often is something the coaches will determine in training camp and the preseason.
"Until we start getting some pads on and things like that, that’s kind of hard to tell," said Defensive Line Coach Jay Hayes. "We’re just going to have to mix and match the guys we have. My history has been we’re going to roll guys through, keep people fresh and just keep coming after people in waves and that’s kind of what I’ve always done and that’s what we’ll continue to do here."
In the secondary, it's fairly common in today's NFL for teams to look at their third cornerback as another starter. With offenses so frequently in three or four-receiver sets, defenses have to counter with nickel and dime packages, and the third cornerback is often on the field for more snaps than one of the starting linebackers. The Bucs want some of their cornerbacks to be ready to play both on the outside and in the slot in nickel packages, depending upon the need of the moment. Rookie Vernon Hargreaves, the team's first draft pick, is getting that kind of training already.
"I think we’ve got guys that can play both inside and outside and Vernon falls right into that category," said Smith. "We got him probably more snaps at the nickel position [in mini-camp] because he hadn’t done that in a couple of years. At Florida he was more of an outside guy, so we wanted to first expose him to the nickel position. As I said, we’re going to play more five-defensive back and six-defensive back schemes than we are when we’re lining up with four DBs, so we have to have these guys cross-trained and I do believe he has the football intelligence and the background to play both inside and outside."
The Bucs were clearly seeking immediate improvement for a pass defense that struggled in 2015 when they used their first two selections on Hargreaves and Spence. The free agency additions of Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes made the same point. Whether or not all four of those players are listed as starters on Day One of the regular season, all four will surely be a significant part of the team's defensive plans. And they'll have plenty of company.