Two-point-five seconds. That's the countdown in the head of every Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive back these days.
For an NFL defensive back who is charged with covering an opposing receiver man-to-man, 2.5 seconds is the preferred amount of time from the snap to the moment that the quarterback has to either throw the ball or find himself buried by a defensive lineman. Each successive second that ticks on with the quarterback unharassed makes it far more likely that the passer is going to find an open man, no matter how good the coverage is.
Man-to-man coverage is obviously riskier, from a play-to-play standpoint, than zone coverage. Defensive coordinators who call man-to-man are asking their defensive backs to win on talent, not scheme. The upside to man coverage, of course, is that more defenders can be charged with rushing the quarterback or loading the line of scrimmage against the run.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not known as a man-to-man team, to say the least. The ubiquitous Cover Two defense, based on two deep safeties, is now widely known as the "Tampa Two" because the Buccaneers played it so well for many years. But to say the Buccaneers are currently a Cover Two team is about as accurate as labeling Linkin Park as alternative; Tampa Bay hasn't played a predominantly Cover Two defense for years, and this season they are relying on man-to-man coverage far more than in any season in recent memory.
"We're playing a lot more man coverage than we have in probably a decade here," said Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake. "Our pass-rush is coming along, so we know the ball has to come out quickly. You obviously can't play man-to-man defensive for five to six seconds because those receivers are going to get open. But if we trust our pass-rush, and we trust the corners and DBs we have covering, who are covering really well right now, we feel real confident and we're going to keep on calling man throughout the season."
Lake, the Bucs' defensive backs coach since 2010, doesn't hesitate to reveal the shift in the Bucs' coverage philosophy, and of course there is no reason to do so. All of Tampa Bay's opponents can see what is taking place on game tape. It simply is no secret – Tampa Bay is counting on increased pressure up front to speed up their opponents' passing game, and talented defensive backs on the other end to either make up for pass-rush inadequacies or take advantage of turnover opportunities.
"That's the combination," he said. "You have to have the guys to be able to play man coverage, and then you have to have a rush so the ball comes out. I think those guys want to get there in 2.5 seconds. If they get to the quarterback somewhere around there, then we can play man coverage for that long."
The Bucs have 10 sacks through their four games this season, on a pace for 40 over a full campaign that would be the team's high-water mark since 2004. They have eight sacks in the last two games, six of them by defensive linemen, and even that doesn't fully illustrate how disruptive the front four has been thus far. The team has counted up 35 quarterback pressures in addition to those eight sacks in the last two games. Indianapolis' Curtis Painter threw for 281 yards on the Bucs Monday night, most of it on two big plays by Pierre Garcon, but he was also hurried into 17 incompletions in 30 attempts.
Tampa Bay coaches fully expect the pass rush to remain a strength, and probably even get better considering its prevailing youth, so they've made it clear to the defensive backs that they will continue to hear more man-to-man calls than in the past.
"I've told those guys the last few weeks, 'Be ready to stand up,'" said Lake. "It's been on the tip sheet, and we've stood up most snaps. And it's going to happen throughout the rest of the season."
Again, it's a calculated risk based on compressing the quarterback's time and sticking with receivers as long as possible. It's not always going to work, but Lake wants his defensive backs to execute the defense without fear.
"I'm not the kind of coach if they get a [deep] ball caught on them I'm going to dog-cuss them," said Lake. "They know if they use the right technique, they use the right leverage, know where they have they help, know where they don't have help…if, at the end of the day, [the other team makes] a really good pass and a really good catch then, here we go, next play."
The three Buc cornerbacks seeing the most action in this man-to-man scheme are Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and E.J. Biggers. Talib has quickly emerged as one of the league's best all-around young cornerbacks, and Biggers was vastly underrated in his first season of play in 2010. Barber, now in his 15th season, may very well be headed to the Hall of Fame, but there are still those who are surprised that the team is relying on him to excel in man-to-man coverage.
Barber has long held a reputation as the perfect Cover Two cornerback, and while that was definitely not meant as an insult, it did seem to hint that he was more comfortable in zone than in man. In reality, the Bucs have been comfortable utilizing Barber in any sort of coverage for years.
"That's a misnomer about Ronde," said Lake. "Ronde's a really good man-coverage guy. Really, all the DBs learn a lot from him about how he plays bump coverage, how he plays off coverage, how he reads the coverage. We've played man around here before, just not as many snaps in a row as we're doing right now. We feel really confident with all our guys. There are times when we have six DBs on the grass at one time and it's working well for us on third down. We're pretty good on third down right now."
Lake is clearly pleased with the play of his cornerbacks so far, and the Bucs are obviously confident enough in them to keep calling for man coverage. However, there is one area in which Lake doesn't hesitate to say improvement is needed. The Bucs have only two interceptions so far this season, one each by Barber and Talib. A couple golden opportunities for picks went through players' hands on Monday night.
"We just want some more interceptions right now," said Lake. "We've dropped too many, but they're going to come in bunches. They usually do. I'm happy with sacks; I'll be even more happy with interceptions."