Mike Smith, who was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive coordinator last week, says he would have only considered taking that position in Tampa, under new Head Coach Dirk Koetter. Smith finished a largely-successful seven-year run as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach in 2014, and for the last three of those seasons he had Koetter as his offensive coordinator.
If Koetter's presence makes Smith feel comfortable, there is another factor in this move down I-95 that might have the opposite effect. Smith may have left Atlanta, but he didn't escape the NFC South, and that means he and his defense will be facing a familiar challenge.
New defensive coordinator Mike Smith meets with members of the media for the first time since joining the Buccaneers.
"Let me say this about the NFC South: Look at the four teams, look at the four quarterbacks," he said. "Is there any other division in the National Football League that has quarterback play like you have here in the NFC South? So as the defensive coordinator you're going to have some sleepless nights and some long game-planning days to prepare for the other quarterbacks that we're going to be playing. But the great thing about it is, those defensive coordinators on those other teams are going to have the same thing with Jameis [Winston] and Dirk putting together a game plan."
Winston, who just produced the third 4,000-yard passing game by a rookie in league history, is the least established of the four NFC South starting quarterbacks. Carolina's Cam Newton is the favorite to win league MVP honors this year, while New Orleans' Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan own multiple Pro Bowl selections and hugely prolific numbers. That's six matchups per year against top-flight passers, and that's why Smith emphasized the need for the Bucs' to develop a more robust pass-rush.
Photos of new Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith.
"Rushing the passer is so important in the NFL," said Smith. "The level of quarterback play over the last seven years has changed dramatically. It used to be that there were two or three, quote, 'elite' quarterbacks. Now there's probably 10 to 12 that are playing at an elite level in this league at one time, and if you don't affect the quarterback and put pressure on the quarterback, they're going to cut you up. They're going to make plays. So it's going to be imperative that we get pressure on the quarterback. In an ideal situation you'd like to do it with a four-man rush, but if it doesn't work with a four-man rush then you've got to add people to the rush."
Smith said the Buccaneers will continue to operate out of a 4-3 base, but will have multiple looks. His basic concept is to make his defense simple for his own players to learn and execute but complicated for opponents – especially quarterbacks – to recognize and diagnose. He and his fellow defensive coaches will adjust their approach based on the talent at hand, and Smith is just starting to get a feel for exactly what that talent is.
"I've been here a day-and-a-half and I've watched from afar," he said. But until we get an opportunity to really look under the hood and get a chance to evaluate what the players were asked to do…sometimes if you don't know what they're asked to do you might not get the right evaluation. I'm excited. You want to put your players in the best position that you possibly can; that's what coaching's all about. It's about putting them in a spot where they can be successful and be the best version of themselves."
One player who is certain to be at the center of Smith's plans – one who is easy to evaluate even from afar – is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. McCoy is about to play in his fourth straight Pro Bowl, and after that he's going to return to a coordinator who plans to get the most out of his rare skill set.
"Well he's a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, there's no doubt about it," said Smith. "I think his work speaks for itself. He's a guy that can be disruptive from the defensive line position. Most of the time in the scheme that he's played over the last two years he's lined up as a three-technique [tackle]; he gets a lot of one-on-one opportunities and when he gets those one-on-one opportunities he's made people pay.
"His explosiveness is probably the thing that stands out the most. He's a very explosive player. He's athletic. If you were going to put together a profile of what you wanted a three-technique to look like, that's the kind of guy that you want to have."
Smith also mentioned Lavonte David during his first meeting with the Bay area press on Wednesday, and the Pro Bowl alternate linebacker is sure to be at the center of his defensive plans, as well. As for how the rest of the defense will shape up, that's a process that Smith and his assistants are just beginning. Clearly, it will be a labor of love.
"I am so excited [about] the last day-and-a-half where I've had nothing but sitting in the staff room talking about football and talking about how we're going to put the best defense out there that we possibly can in 2016," said Smith.