Last year at this time, defenders for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were doing simple math when it came to the new system being installed by Mike Smith. They had progressed along the curriculum by the regular season but weren't exactly getting top marks for their efforts. Fortunately, a little interdisciplinary study helped the Buccaneers straighten things out right around time for midterms.
Specifically, the Bucs upped their grades significantly in Communications and that led to better results on the numbers. As the players have moved on to a new school year, they've taken those gains with them. Now Smith says his group is ready to tackle some higher math.
"I do think that as we've started this offseason program, the knowledge that our players have, what they've been able to retain from last season to this season has been very good," said Smith. "We're not starting at '2+2 is 4,' we're into calculus. That's a good thing for us as a coaching staff and as a football team. We're able to install a lot quicker, we're going to be able to put in a few more wrinkles and hopefully it'll be effective. The big thing for us is we know these guys now. We know what they're capable of doing and we've also added, I think, some guys that are going to come in and help us at all three levels."
It's a familiar story by now, at least the first part of it. Smith joined his former Falcons cohort Dirk Koetter, now the Buccaneers' head coach, as Tampa Bay's new defensive coordinator in 2016. Given his track record as a coordinator in Jacksonville and a head coach in Atlanta, Smith was considered an extremely significant addition to the Buccaneers' formula for success. Through the first eight games of the season, defensive results betrayed some clear difficulty for Tampa Bay players in grasping the new defense.
Through the first eight games of their season, the Buccaneers allowed 29.0 points per game (29th in the NFL) and 281.0 passing yards per game (27th) while generating 11 takeaways (tied for 19th). That stretch culminated in a very difficult five-day Sunday-Thursday span in which the Bucs' defense gave up 1,087 yards and 73 points in losses to Oakland and Atlanta.
Injuries and fatigue, not to mention two red-hot opposing offenses, played a part in that, but the coaching staff determined that the biggest problem was communication between players, or the lack thereof. Buccaneer defenders simply weren't talking to each other enough, or effectively when they did.
"I told them, 'We've got to get over that. We've got to go through this learning process that you go through as a defensive football team,'" said Smith. "I've talked to them about being more verbal. We've made a conscious effort about since after the Atlanta game last year about making sure that we're communicating and collaborating. I think we've gotten into a groove. We've had to go back over it and make sure everybody understands how we're doing it in our offseason program.
"It's critical for us. The game has gotten very complicated. The days of two backs, tight end in a normal alignment, and two wide receivers, it doesn't exist. They're putting people all over the field, the offense is working on spacing so we've got to be able to communicate. These guys have really bought into that."
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Over the final eight games of the season, Tampa Bay's defense led the NFL with 18 takeaways and ranked fourth in points allowed per game (17.1) while shaving more than 60 yards off their per-game pass defense. It was a stunning turnaround taken in total, and there were even some very specific examples where Smith said improved communication made all the difference. Chris Conte's rout-starting pick-six against Chicago in Week 10 came first; two weeks later, six sacks of quarterback Russell Wilson keyed a dominant defensive effort and a 14-5 victory.
"One that sticks out to me is in the Chicago game," Smith elaborated. "We have a certain way that we pick up a route. Chris Conte got an interception because we were communicating pre-snap about the formation and about what adjustment we were going to make. Fortunately for us, they threw us the ball. That's one example. There's a number of examples with our pass rush in the Seattle game. Our defensive line did a very good job of communicating based on the formation and what pass-rush games we were going to run, and we got home and we were able to confuse our opponent."
That improved communication in the second half of 2016 is definitely carrying over to the new year, according to linebacker Lavonte David. He says the defense, as currently constructed and with last year's gains, is in position to get off to the fast start that eluded it a year ago, when everything was so new.
"When you look back and if you could have a camera in our meeting room last year, it was crazy," said David. "Everybody had the 'big eyes' when we were installing, but now it's totally different. Everybody's talking, the whole room is communicating from the D-line to the secondary to the linebackers, and that's amazing. Coach Smith is getting really excited about that. So, that's really cool to see and also it translating over on the field when we're doing walkthroughs and things like that. Guys are talking, guys are knowing what each other's supposed to be doing, so that's a real cool thing."
"Now the players have a good feel not only for their own assignments but those of their teammates at other positions. If you can speak multiple languages, communication is only going to get better. That remains the key for the Buccaneers, especially if they want to unlock the calculus portions of Smith's playbook.
"As the season went on, we kind of graduated from knowing what we were doing to knowing what the guys around you were doing," said David. "That's the main thing. That's the only way the defense is going to work - if you know who you are working with, knowing where guys are supposed to be and knowing how you're supposed to fit. That allows us to play fast and make plays and anticipate things. That's the main thing. That's the type of level we are trying to get on in order for us to be a great defense."