Defensive Coordinator Jim Bates uses an aggressive approach to running his unit
The Miami Dolphins compiled a 9-7 record in 2002, and while that was as good as any other team in the AFC East, tiebreakers cost the Dolphins both a division title and a Wild Card playoff berth.
As Miami's defensive coordinator that season, Jim Bates obviously wasn't thrilled with that development. There was one very small silver lining, though: With his team done for the year, Bates was able to follow his youngest son's path to the championship very closely.
Jeremy Bates was a quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, a newcomer along with fellow QC Coach Raheem Morris. The elder Bates, who has spent a good portion of his coaching career in Florida and has family scattered throughout the state, happily hopped on the Buccaneers' bandwagon and followed them to Philadelphia and San Diego in pursuit of that championship.
Bates went to all three playoff games and saw every play, from Brad Johnson's five touchdown passes to Mike Alstott's four scoring runs to the nearly sack-free work turned in by a previously-maligned offensive line. Most of all he saw a Buccaneers' defense, ranked number one during the regular season (Bates' Dolphins were third), that seized the opportunity to put together one of the finest postseason runs in NFL history. Tampa Bay's three opponents combined for two touchdown passes and nine interceptions, recorded just 269.7 yards and 12.3 points per game and managed just 25:02 minutes of possession per game. Oh, and the Bucs' defense scored four touchdowns, exactly as many as it allowed.
So when Bates arrived in Tampa last month to take over as the team's new defensive coordinator, replacing the man who had directed that '02 defense in Monte Kiffin, he knew there were plenty of elements of the Buccaneers' previous defense worth preserving. In fact, he and other coordinators around the league had already found ways to assimilate those elements into their own systems.
"We will carry a lot of what Monte has done in the past," said Bates of his plans to keep the Buccaneers in their customary spot in the top 10 of the league's rankings. "There are some good things that we incorporated into our defenses at the different places I've been.
"Monte is a good friend of mine. [He] has been one of the top if not the top defensive coach in the country for a long, long time at the college level and here at Tampa Bay especially. I have nothing but the utmost respect for what Monte and this coaching staff has done over the years defensively. There have been a lot of people copy them, as far as the Tampa Two, as far as they put that into their defenses. I have great respect for the way the players [play the game]. It's going to be an easier transition for us, and me in particular, as far as how the team has played with such passion and aggressiveness."
Still, Bates has his own outstanding track record of success in his previous NFL stops. For six straight years in Miami (2000-04) and Green Bay (2005), he coordinated defenses that finished in the NFL's top 10. That track record, in fact, was one of the things about Bates that put him on Tampa Bay's radar after Morris was promoted to head coach in January and the Bucs began the process of filling out Morris' staff.
Bates' defense operates out of a 4-3 base and believes in getting pressure on the quarterback with just the front four as often as possible. It's a one-gap scheme, with fast linebackers and tough cornerbacks. There is a premium on stopping the run, forcing difficult third downs and getting off the field.
"We will be running a lot of what we've had great success in," said Bates. "We're going to use what Monte and the players are comfortable in, in certain areas. And the blend is going to be for the better."
If there is one area that will look significantly different to Buccaneers fans, in Bates' estimation, it will be the approach of the cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. Kiffin's defenses favored zones and often had the cornerbacks lined up well off the receivers. Bates prefers a higher percentage of press coverage from the corners.
"If anything is going to really strike you it's that the cornerbacks will play a lot more bump coverage," said Bates. "We will play off at times and we will play some of the things they've done and been very, very successful with in the past. But we will be a lot more aggressive with corner play as far as in the bump technique.
"We have the philosophy that we're going to take away every route and the quarterback's going to have to hold the ball. That's why over the years we've had tremendous defensive end success. That will be the biggest change."
The point of that approach, as Bates alludes to at the end, is to find a way to put more pressure on the quarterback. Take away a quarterback's quick and easy reads, force him farther through his progression and you're adding valuable seconds to his time in the pocket.
"We play tight match coverage, so the quarterback holds the ball," said Bates. "We've had tremendous success improving a lot of sack numbers, as far as with our four-man rush."
Indeed, Gaines Adams and company may have reason to get excited.
In 1999, Miami end Jason Taylor had 2.5 sacks, and he had averaged seven sacks a season during his first two years in the league. In Bates' first season at the Dolphins' defensive helm, Taylor recorded 14.5 sacks; the star rusher would average nearly 13 sacks a year during Bates' tenure in Miami.
Adewale Ogunleye went from undrafted free agent to a 15-sack season under Bates in Miami. Trace Armstrong made his only Pro Bowl in Bates' first year in Miami and had 16.5 sacks that year, up nine from the previous campaign.
"We've had a lot of success," said Bates of putting promising defensive ends into good situations. "Now, they've got to have ability. If they don't have ability, we can coach into the hours and not get it done. But if they have it, the quarterback's going to hold that ball a little bit longer in some of the things that we do, and that's all it takes. Sometimes you have the greatest pass-rush in the world and [you count to] 'One, two, three, four, five,' and the ball's out and you're not going to get there."
Of course, the Buccaneers had been playing Kiffin's schemes for more than a decade, and good teams support their coaching staff with a personnel department that brings in the right type of players for the system. Now, even if there are similarities between the Kiffin and Bates approaches, some returning men will be asked to take on a new approach. Do the Buccaneers currently have the personnel to succeed in Bates' scheme?
He didn't hesitate to answer.
"Yes, yes," said Bates, firmly. "And the thing is, if there's a player that hasn't adjusted or can't do it, he can still play within the system with a different technique. We're not going to put a guy out there who can't bump, for one reason or another, and put him in an unfair situation.
"I don't think there's going to be much trouble with any of our players that we've looked at. Again, we're in the process of evaluating everything – players, system – but from what we've seen the adjustment is going to be relatively simple. We have defensive ends that can run, rush the passer.
"And there's good character on this team. I mean, these guys that are in town have all come to see us and you can just feel the passion that they have for football. So they've brought in some players who are good character people, good people that want to play as a team, and it's going to be an easier transition, like I said, coming in after Monte's system and what they've accomplished here in the past."