TAMPA — Coach Raheem Morris might have taken command of the Buccaneers' defense on the fly, but the intricacies of his scheme were not quickly conceived.
"You don't just go to sleep and have a dream and wake up and install a defense in the morning," Morris said Thursday.
The process actually takes years, and it involves input from a number of people and sources. To that end, Morris, the former defensive backs coach, has been jotting down concepts in his handy notebooks since his office was the size of a broom closet, stealing principles from the likes of Tampa Bay's former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, former coach Jon Gruden and others around the league.
So, you might have noticed some variety since Morris, 33, assumed the role of calling defensive plays three games ago, after the demotion of coordinator Jim Bates. The Bucs have used everything from a front that uses five down linemen to a 3-4 configuration, all the while using the personnel in those fronts to do a litany of tasks that are not easily predicted.
The improvement has been incremental, but things are creeping in the right direction. Though the Bucs have allowed 27.4 points this season (30th in the NFL), they have limited opponents to 20.6 points with Morris running the defense. In that span, teams have averaged 305.3 total yards, compared with 361.5 for the season.
But the biggest gains likely will come down the road. This is something of an experimental phase for Morris and his defense, and he is still learning what works and what doesn't.
"You're always adding new ideas and formulating what you want to do," Morris said.
"We've done a lot of that stuff with Kiffin, too. He was a big experimenter. A lot of it just didn't make it to game day."
Kiffin would test various concepts during the preseason and even in weeks leading up to regular-season games. Some he liked. Others he could do without.
"We had an ongoing bet around here for years with (former Bucs defensive tackle) Anthony McFarland on how soon 'Under 57' would get thrown out of the defense," Morris said. "I'd say, 'I'm giving it the first two weeks' or whatever. But sometimes you hold on to some of those ideas or sometimes you tweak them.
"We've actually messed around with a little of that 3-4 before. The system is about mentality. The fun part is that you get a chance to go out and do it and install some things. That stimulates your coaches and it stimulates your players. It just gives you a different look and makes (opponents) look at different things."
Much of this flies in the face of the notion that the Bucs defense, under Morris' direction, is purely a traditional Tampa 2 unit. Morris never promised that. He merely said the Tampa 2 would serve as a foundation.
"I love when people just keep calling (us) Tampa 2," Morris said. "Hopefully people don't watch the tape and just read your stories. That's awesome for me. When you come in (to play the Bucs), you don't know what you're going to see."
Morris said one of the reasons he likes to be diverse is because it tends to keep his players "stimulated" during game preparation. Mission accomplished.
"Raheem is about being multidimensional," defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "With the (five-man) front, you can stop the run with it, but you can also do a bunch of other things, too. We can drop guys into coverage. A lot of times, we drop our ends into coverage anyway, and you still have the ability to do that. There's really no telling with Coach Rah."
Defensive end Stylez White smiled when he spoke of lining up as an outside linebacker last Sunday as the defense briefly toyed with a 3-4 front.
"We have some athletes, and we want to try to let them be athletic and see what they can handle," White said. "It's fun for me. I like it because I get to stand up when we're in that 3-4 sort of lineup. We call it the Buc End."
For the Bucs, this isn't considered conventional. But even Kiffin lamented that the vanilla Tampa 2 has become so widely used that offenses have become adept at exploiting it.
Thus, the need to evolve.
"I've been outside the box since the very beginning," Morris said. "Trust me, I have my core beliefs. I know what I want to do. I know how to coach it and teach it. But now it's about putting people in the right spots and putting people on what they can do best.
"That's when players start to look better."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.