DE Greg Spires had 86 tackles and eight sacks in 2004, clearly demonstrating his dual strengths in rushing the passer and stopping the run
On any given snap for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the rest of the defensive front might be playing a one-gap scheme while left defensive end Greg Spires is playing a two-gap technique.
Is Spires an undisciplined free-lancer? Inattentive in the meeting rooms? A poor fit for the Bucs' well-established defense?
Hardly. In fact, the eighth-year veteran, in his fourth year as a starter in Tampa, is a perfect fit for the Buccaneers, in part due to a philosophy that strives to put each man in a position that plays to his talents. Greg has several, not the least of which is brute strength that has earned him the nickname "The Crane" among his teammates.
First, a quick lesson, or refresher as the case may be. There are two basic ways a defensive front can approach the wall of blockers in front of them.
One approach puts a man on a man. That is, the nose tackle might line up right across from the center, confront him directly at the snap, and then be responsible for the gap on either side of that man. That is a two-gap defense.
The other approach is to put a man on a gap. That is, the under tackle might line up across from the theoretical space between the center and the right guard. He is responsible for that gap only, either shooting through it to the quarterback or tackling whoever comes through it. That is a one-gap defense.
That's a rather basic description, ignoring many complicated details. But the point is, the Buccaneers under Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin have always been a one-gap team. Still, that doesn't stop Kiffin and Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli from asking Spires to worry about two gaps. They put Spires in that position because they know he can succeed in that role.
"My main job here is to get sacks and to play over the strong side, the tight end," said the former Florida State standout. "I'm the only guy on the defensive line who really has a 2-gap. I have one gap, but I've got to help outside, too, so it's kind of like two gaps.
See, I'm good at doing that, and the coaches want to put every player in position to make plays to their strengths. Me, I'm a good run-stopper, especially if they're trying to run it, run it, run it, over and over. The coaches want me in that mix, and why not? Why not put Simeon [Rice] outside and have him rush the passer? Why not put Mac [Anthony McFarland] in one gap, put everybody in a position where they can excel?"
If you're following this, then you can probably make the next leap to the reason Spires has long been considered an underrated player by those close to the game. That label has faded a bit in recent years, thanks to a huge outing in Super Bowl XXXVII and his Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2004. Spires is definitely recognized as one of the standout defenders on the league's top-ranked defense this year, just as he was in 2002.
He is not, however, a household name like Simeon Rice, Jason Taylor or Dwight Freeney. The reason is clear enough: The glamour stat for defensive ends is sacks, and when you start putting up 15 or 16 a year, NFL fans everywhere start to take notice. Spires had eight sacks last year, an outstanding total, but he had dozen more crucial plays that counted as nothing more than a tackle on the stat chart. With those extra responsibilities on the left side, Spires isn't always going to be the flashiest player on the field, even if he is one of the most important.
That doesn't seem to bother him a bit. He wants the type of recognition that comes from team success, like what he experienced in 2002. When he sacked QB Rich Gannon, notched three other tackles and deflected two passes, one of which led to an interception return for a touchdown, Spires was considered one of the main options for MVP of the biggest game around. That's recognition.
"The people here, the coaches and staff here, know what I can do," said Spires. "The players around me know. When we win as a team – and hopefully we can continue winning this year – everybody gets noticed. Me, Ellis [Wyms], everybody. Even the backups. If we go to the playoffs and have homefield advantage, everyone will know our defense."
It's very, very early, but the Bucs are on the right track for that homefield advantage. Their 4-1 record is the best in the NFC, and a huge part of that fast start has been a suddenly stout run defense (not to mention a more productive rushing offense).
The Bucs allowed 123.3 rushing yards per game last year and ranked 19th in that regard. Through five games this year, they've cut that number almost exactly in half, to 61.6 yards per game, and are first in the league. The addition of nose tackle Chris Hovan has certainly helped, but most of the personnel is the same as it was in 2004. Much of the improvement has been a matter of discipline and effort.
"This offseason the coaches talked about it, we really harped on it," said Spires of stopping the run. "They put a real emphasis on it, and they pointed out plays, our bad plays from the year before that hurt us, and we really locked down and got our fists in there. I think that helped."
Last year, Spires recorded 86 tackles, an unusually high number for a defensive end. This year, he has seven stops and one sack through five games, perhaps an indication that opponents are mostly running to the other side. That's not unusual; a good portion of a defensive end's statistics are dictated by the opposing team's offensive approach. For example, if a defense only faces 20 pass attempts, there are a lot fewer opportunities for sacks.
Still, Spires expects his numbers to start ringing up again soon.
"Every week I'm getting better," he said. "I haven't had that breakout game where I get three sacks and 10 tackles. It's hard; the way teams are playing us now our sack numbers are down because everything's coming out fast. Everybody wants to run at us. Teams are playing us differently. We're shutting teams down with the run, and they're taking quick, short passes. We really can't do much about that. All we can do is do our jobs, stop the run, put them in passing situations and get off the field."
Spires' big 2004 season, with the rare mix of tackles and sacks, earned him a spot on the USA Today All-Joe Team, which is meant to recognize a player who gets his job done in an excellent but unglamorous fashion. That's Spires. However, he's not necessarily opposed to a higher profile or a larger fan base.
In fact, he recently launched a web site, Spires94.com, in an attempt to reach some of those fans. He takes questions from fans on the site and answers them in a message board format.
"I just wanted to start something, get my name out there, for the fans from the area who do know me," he said. "I'm from Ft. Myers, I'm a Florida boy, this is my area. It's a way to connect with people. That's what it's all about."