Doug Farrar of the renowned Football Outsiders.com by way of YahooSports.com and the Washington Post is putting all thirty-two teams under surveillance heading into training camp. Farrar broaches the subject of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers porous run defense over the last season and a quarter – has dug into the past and looked to one of the greatest innovators of all-time on defense, in Tom Landry and his famed “Flex Defense” package to help stop teams from running up the gut.
But the premise of Farrar’s angst against the Bucs two newest defensive tackles is that neither Gerald McCoy nor Brian Price are big enough in a traditional 40 front too stop the run without smoke and mirrors. The biggest fault in Farrar’s theory though is that going to any system that calls for the Bucs interior lineman to read and then react, reverts back to Jim Bates‘ philosophy that falls more in line with a 2-gap scheme that didn’t stop the run either.
After the 2009 season, the team took drastic action: it released Hovan and kept Sims on purely as a backup. Then, in the NFL draft, the Bucs took defensive tackles with their first two picks: Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy went No. 3, and UCLA’s Brian Price(notes) was taken with the 35th overall pick. While both players will make a difference on that Tampa Bay line, there’s one problem: Neither one of them are big enough to take the traditional nose tackle position in a four-man front. That’s fine in the traditional Tampa 2 if you have the talent to make up for it – Sapp was a 300-pounder who played as if he was 30 pounds heavier from an impact perspective – but Price, at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, might find the move to nose tackle at the NFL level to be a major adjustment. And McCoy, who stands 6-4 and weighs just 295 pounds (the average size of a 3-4 end), has a tendency to get lost in scrums and double-teams for all his initial drive and burst.
The Colts have succeeded with smaller interior defenders in the past with tackle stunts and specific linebacker positioning, but it’s generally a patch job, hidden by the fact that Peyton Manning(notes) forces opposing offenses to play catch-up with the pass. To see how the Bucs can overcome size issues in the middle, let’s look at another light defense, and a coordinator who adjusted with scheme.
The 2010 solution: Create read-and-react situations with flex positioning
The ’09 Broncos switched to a 3-4 defense, despite the fact that they had no one on their line heavy enough to play the traditional nose tackle role. Ronald Fields(notes) started all 16 games for the Broncos at nose tackle at 6-2 and 314 pounds – at least 10 pounds lighter than the usual 3-4 nose. At 6-3 and 314 pounds, Marcus Thomas spelled Fields at times. Former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan adjusted by installing different “flex” packages, which took Fields and other linemen just off the line of scrimmage so that they could read blocking schemes and would not be overwhelmed by initial blocks. The concept was invented by legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry as a response to the Vince Lombardi power sweep, and mirrored Lombardi’s own ideas about zone blocking. The Flex is sort of a zone front – defensive linemen are initially responsible for areas as opposed to blockers. This is how the Broncos ranked 15th in the NFL in those same Football Outsiders stats up the middle against the run.
In the diagrammed example, Thomas (79) is flexed off the line with 1:38 left in the first quarter of Denver’s Week 14 loss to the Colts. End/linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes) (92) crashed right tackle Ryan Diem’s(notes) outside protection and invaded the backfield, preventing running back Joseph Addai(notes) from heading upfield. Forced to juke his way outside right tackle, Addai ran toward the sideline, looking for a lane to exploit. But he couldn’t cut back in on Thomas, because Thomas used the extra time given to him by the flex position to read the block from right guard Kyle DeVan(notes). Thomas saw DeVan coming up straight ahead; he knew he wouldn’t have to deal with a trap or pull or slide protection. Thomas took a quick move inside and twisted out of the block, running along Addai’s path and forcing him to extend his line out of bounds.
If the Bucs plan to move Price to the nose position as they say, they’d be wise to employ a few flex looks, giving Price that extra split second to read what’s in front of him. It could be the difference between a new run-stopping front four, and the same problems with different names behind them.
By employing a flex position for Price and having him read rather then exploding, many expect that it will only negates his initial burst and disruptive presence that presumably got him drafted at the top half of the second round. However, there’s been some subtle hints from defensive line coach Todd Wash teaching his new pupils a gap – half technique where Price and McCoy play their respective gap responsibility – thus having the ability to get into the gaps on either side of them if necessary in run defense. They would still be moving up field, but doing so at a slight angle which will allow them to plant and explode while changing direction and flowing too the action .
Based on what Raheem Morris did after he took over when calling the defensive plays, he reverted the defense to a hybrid defense that incorporated some 3-4, 4-3, Tampa 2 and Amoeba Defensive looks into a bastardized defensive scheme that was mix and matched down the stretch. Fans should not rule anything out at this point. With both Price and McCoy teaming up with Roy Miller the Bucs third round pick from last year, the options seem limitless on defense.