Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Blitzing suddenly in vogue for Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TAMPA — Bucs coach Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan have combined to install a scheme that looks and feels vastly different from what preceded it.

And for one particular unit, the changes have been especially dramatic. The defense is, in a way, redefining what it means to be a Bucs linebacker.

That was on full display in Friday night's preseason win against the Patriots, when the linebackers pressured and sacked Tom Brady with a series of well-timed blitzes.

The Bucs will still ask linebackers to cover tight ends and perform other usual tasks, but the new wrinkle is here to stay. It's quite the departure from the Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin bend-but-don't-break style of yesteryear, but aggressive pressure is a basic tenet of Schiano's defensive philosophy.

"Schiano came from that era of smashmouth football, just bring the pressure and make the quarterback fold," said sixth-year linebacker Adam Hayward, who began his career playing for defensive coordinator Kiffin in the Tampa 2 system.

"It's different. We get to use Quincy (Black's) speed, Dekoda (Watson's) speed, my size and Mason (Foster's) size and bring the pressure. Quincy and I are a dying breed. We're the last from that (Kiffin) defense, but we like the change. We think it's awesome."

Starting at middle linebacker for Foster (hamstring strain), Hayward had a sack and six tackles Friday. The other starters joined in too. Black and rookie Lavonte David had clean shots on Brady, though neither registered a sack.

Schiano and Sheridan will use other players to bring intensified pressure. Defensive backs Ronde Barber and Eric Wright also have been a part of the effort. But the linebackers are central to the plan.

"They're really utilizing us as a linebacker corps to (blitz)," Watson said. "I'm all for it. … The blitzing is really working out for us."

The plan succeeded Friday, but it will be tougher in the regular season when opponents have film on the Bucs and better plan strategy for games.

Blitzing is risky, especially against the league's elite quarterbacks. Consider a second-quarter play on which Brady had to contend with extra rushers Watson, David and Barber. He beat the blitz with a quick throw to single-covered receiver Deion Branch, who picked up a first down on third and 13.

There are challenges before the snap. The linebackers must be ready to adjust because offenses often make changes that can neutralize the blitz.

"To play linebacker, you have to be one of the smartest guys on the field," David said. "You have to read a lot of things. To be put in that position is a challenge, but I think the linebackers as a group are stepping up to that challenge."

A few plays before the aforementioned third-down conversion, Hayward charged through the line untouched and flattened Brady for a loss of 11. Running back Stevan Ridley missed the blitz pickup.

One reason for increased blitzes: the Bucs haven't gotten consistent pressure with their four down linemen. Also, if blitzes succeed, the secondary catches a break by not having to cover receivers for long stretches.

"We're trying to make their job easier," Hayward said.

The Bucs probably won't waste time breaking out these blitzes. They open the regular season against quarterbacks Cam Newton (Panthers), Eli Manning (Giants) and Tony Romo (Cowboys). Letting them sit comfortably in the pocket usually results in a loss.

"When you hit the quarterback, even Tom Brady, a future Hall of Famer. … it gets frustrating and he gets out of his comfort zone," Hayward said. "In order for our defense to get off the field, we have to do that."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen.

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