Mark Duffner, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' newly-promoted defensive coordinator, says he and the rest of the team's coaching staff is, "…very engaged in making things better in terms of the execution of our defense."
That's to be expected, of course, given the struggles the Buccaneers have had on that side of the ball in the first third of the season, as well as last year. Tampa Bay currently ranks 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per game and last in points allowed per game; meanwhile, the offense is scoring enough that even a modest improvement on defense could make a difference in the win and loss columns.
The question, of course, is what is going to change in the transition from Mike Smith to Duffner to produce better results. There will be changes, it's fairly clear, but for strategic reasons Duffner doesn't want to share much in terms of lineup decisions, play-calling or overall strategy. In terms of overall defensive philosophy, however, Duffner stressed the word "aggressive" in his first discussion of the type of defense he wants to mold in Tampa.
"I believe our approach has always been we play defense as aggressively as we possibly can," he said. "That doesn’t define meaning necessarily all blitz or pressure. That means that you play hard, that you play physical, you play smart – all those words kind of go into that word, 'aggressive.' You can play aggressive coverage and be in zone defense. You can play aggressive run defense and not be in a pressure situation, so I think aggressive and physical is what we’ve got to be on defense. Defense has no room for being soft."
The Buccaneers have generally blitzed a little less than average this season, and prior to the Atlanta game they had produced worse results when blitzing than not bringing extra rushers. There were some new wrinkles in the game plan against the Falcons and the blitz was apparently a bit more successful because the Bucs' opponent passer rating dropped from 144.7 in that situation prior to Sunday's game to 109.5 after. The Buccaneers could also employ more press coverage if rookie Carlton Davis – their best press corner – returns to action after missing one game.
But Buccaneer fans will have to wait and see if there are any substantive changes in the team's approach to blitzing and coverage in the weeks to come. Tampa Bay's first test with Duffner at the helm of the defense comes Sunday against the Browns and a rookie quarterback, Baker Mayfield.
"I don't want to give anybody any competitive advantage by saying too much," said Duffner on Wednesday.
What Buccaneer defenders will get is an energetic leader. They'll also get a coach whose approach throughout his career has always been to uplift his players with a positive attitude.
"My philosophy is to be upbeat and positive," said Duffner. "I don’t see what you gain from not being that. Some people choose to do that. We all have that choice. Mine is to – shoot, let’s go after it with gusto whatever we’re doing and I think that you come away from it better after the result."
HOWARD AT A HUNDRED PERCENT: Jameis Winston threw four touchdown passes in his 2018 starting debut on Sunday in Atlanta, and one of them was caught by second-year tight end O.J. Howard. Half of that equation was a surprise, given the events of two weeks ago.
It was not surprising that Winston was back in the starting lineup. After finishing a three-game suspension, he had returned to action in the second half of the Week Four game at Chicago, after which Head Coach Dirk Koetter made it clear the team would be going back to Winston from Ryan Fitzpatrick. And it wasn't even that surprising that Winston threw four touchdown passes in Atlanta. He had two in a half at Chicago and he now has nine four-touchdown games, and a depleted Falcons defense was allowing the second-most points in the game.
It was, however, a bit surprising that Howard was on the field to catch one of those scoring throws. In that game at Chicago, Howard had suffered a knee injury nearly making a circus catch down the field. The injury was expected to keep him sidelined for two to four weeks; even if he made it back at the low end of that production, Howard was likely to miss the Week Six game in Atlanta.
Yet he was back at practice after Tampa Bay's bye week and by Friday was full-go. He suited up in Atlanta and eventually played 34 snaps on offense. That playtime – 52% of the snaps – was a little bit lower than what he had been getting in the first three games of the season but still represented a healthy contribution, as did his four catches for 62 yards and that one touchdown.
Now Howard is ready to pick it up even more against the Browns in Week Seven.
"I'm going 100 percent," he said. "I would never get on the field if I wasn't 100 percent, and I tell everybody that. I wouldn't have played if I didn't feel like I was healthy. I feel good. I'm just going to continue with my brace for a little while just to make sure everything's good, but I feel great though."
Howard's touchdown was his second of the year, and four other Buccaneers have three or more. Tampa Bay's offense currently ranks second in total yards per game, first in passing yards per game and eighth in points per game. With Howard still in the mix, the Bucs still have their full complement of dangerous offensive weapons – the Bucs got to 395 passing yards Sunday without any one player hitting 100 – and are ready to get on another role. Tampa Bay has scored at least 27 points in four of its five games; the problem is they still lost two of those.
That obviously led to the big decision this week to promote Duffner. The question is, as the defense tries to find ways to right itself, does the offense feel like it needs to carry the team in the process? Howard says that's not the mindset; rather, the offense is simply trying to score big points no matter what the situation. And to do that more consistently, it needs to get better in the red zone.
"For us, it's about executing," he said. "We stress so much about being consistent. We get down into the red zone, we want to turn those into [seven] points instead of three points. If we can continue to do that and put points on the board, we'll be fine. That's just the most frustrating thing. You train all week long for that, and then when you get the right, ideal look you don't execute it. That's frustrating when it happens."
BOND BACK, BECKWITH WAITS: Last season, the Buccaneers went into camp with a competition to fill an open spot at strongside linebacker. Kendell Beckwith, a third-round pick out of LSU who had finished his last college season with a November ACL tear, was a strong candidate if he could return to the field in time. Among the other primary options was third-year player Devante Bond.
As it turned out, Beckwith had no trouble with his knee and won the job, while Bond became one of the team's top special teams players. That was probably going to be the case again in 2018 if misfortune for both players hadn't gotten in the way. Beckwith suffered a serious ankle injury as a passenger in an auto accident in April and had to have surgery. He started training camp on the active/non-football-injury list and then was transferred to the reserve/NFI list to start the season. That meant he would be ineligible to practice or play for the first six weeks of the season.
Bond made it to camp but then suffered a foot injury that eventually led to an injury settlement and his release. In such cases, a player is not eligible to re-sign with the team that released him until a number of weeks that equals whatever was used to determine the injury settlement plus three. In Bond's case, that meant he would first be eligible to return to the Bucs in Week Seven, though he could have signed with any other team prior to that.
That meant that both Beckwith and Bond became available to the Buccaneers again on the same day earlier this week. The Buccaneers re-signed Bond to the active roster on Wednesday, which makes him eligible for games right away. However, Beckwith did not return to practice on Wednesday, the first day he could have. The team has a 21-day window in which to get him back on the practice field before it has to make a decision on his roster status for the rest of the year.
Bond led the Buccaneers in special teams tackles in 2017 with 10 and also got some playing time near the end of the season as a stand-up edge rusher, logging four tackles and a quarterback hit. A sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2016, he spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He's clearly proven his value as a special teams player but he wanted to return to the Buccaneers and see if he could accomplish even more.
"That was the plan," said Bond. "I wanted to come back here. Of course there was other teams I was trying to work out with but I always wanted to come back here. I have unfinished business."
Beckwith has unfinished business, too, and he says his recovery is going well.
"I'm doing real good physically," he said. "I'm just working myself back into football shape. The injury, as far as my ankle, it's going really good now. We don't have a set date as to when I'm coming back. We'll see. It's just all about feeling 100 percent again and being totally confident. Once I get to that point, and as long as everything keeps progressing I should be out there sooner than later."