Monday, January 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs to debut Mike Smith's defense in preseason opener at Eagles

TAMPA

Imagine what it was like for former Falcons head coach Mike Smith when he was hired as Bucs defensive coordinator to watch film of what he inherited. A year ago, the Bucs defenders weren't just schooled. They were taken out at recess in front of the student body, pushed around and had their lunch money taken.

Remember the Bucs blowing the 24-0 lead at Washington? Falling behind 28-6 to the St. Louis Rams and underwhelming quarterback Case Keenum on Thursday Night Football? Getting swept by the Panthers and Cam Newton?

Smith hopes to see more fight in the defense that he will direct this season, one that was reinforced by several key free agents and high draft picks.

"Execution and effort. That's going to be the most important thing," Smith said of what he wants to see in tonight's preseason opener at Philadelphia. "We've got a lot of guys to evaluate in a real game situation. We haven't seen guys tackle. That's going to be paramount that we tackle well. We've drilled it. Now we've got to take it to the field because that was an area we identified we've got to do a much better job."

It's a big job and one that Smith and the new coaching staff appear well-equipped for. As defensive coordinator at Jacksonville from 2003-07, Smith's units allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game (300.1) and points per game (18.2).

Not that the cupboard was completely bare on defense when he arrived. The Bucs have a dominant, four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Gerald McCoy and rangy, free-wheeling linebackers in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.

In free agency, the team added defensive lineman Robert Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes. The draft brought cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence, who also played at Ohio State.

"I like the energy they bring," Smith said. "I think the coaching staff has done a great job teaching the guys what we're trying to get done, and now it's the opportunity for us as a coaching staff to look at them in game situations and figure out what our defense is really going to look like in 2016."

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Of course, teams are typically vanilla when it comes to preseason schemes. But there have been enough practices to know that Smith plans to use multiple fronts, mix coverage and bring pressure on the quarterback from all angles.

The predictability of former head coach Lovie Smith's defense last season, coupled with a roulette wheel of players in the secondary and a coaching staff that reflected a value of relationships over qualifications, enabled quarterbacks to have career performances against the Bucs. Opponents combined to throw for 4,072 yards with 31 touchdowns and a passing rating of 102.5.

Lovie Smith hired his son Mikal to coach safeties. His mentor Larry Marmie and friend Gill Byrd coached defensive backs.

Mike Smith reached back to his former Jaguars staff to hire Mark Duffner to coach linebackers and added Brett Maxie and one-time Gator assistant Jon Hoke to coach the secondary.

Hargreaves, a former Wharton High standout and the Bucs' first-round pick from Florida, will begin his career playing in the slot at the nickel cornerback position. "Our thought process is that he played corner in college and I do think that nickel is a completely different skill set," Smith said. "You have both sides of the receiver to defend. When you're playing corner, you're using the sideline. For him, I think our focus has been getting him up to speed at the nickel position, and there's so many moving parts, it happens quicker."

Ayers likes the aggressive style Smith brings to the defense. But in the end, it's the players that are tired of being bullied.

"There's a lot of guys that were here from last year that feel that way," Ayers said. "Lavonte, he wants to win, that dude's a dog, I've seen that from afar. He's a beast, he's one of the best linebackers in the game. Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald … Brent Grimes, he's played at the highest level, he's been on great teams. Even the young cats like Noah Spence, he's played at Ohio State, he's played at the highest level of ball at college. The rookies, so on and so forth, there's guys that are hungry, that want to win."

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