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Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris fine with being 'in the fire'

It's the most important coaching decision the Bucs' Raheem Morris has ever made.

He could continue to listen to the voice in his headset or stop ignoring the one in his head.

He could save face, let Jim Bates continue to call the defense, get steamrolled for 30 points and 170 yards rushing per game, possibly go 1-15 and be one and done as an NFL head coach.

Or he could replace his second coordinator in 11 weeks, become the punch line at cocktail parties and try to turn things around in the final six games by rolling up his sleeves and fixing this mess.

"The only person who's going to suffer the consequences is me," Morris said. "So you might as well put yourself in the fire, take it right between the eyes and do the best you can.

"You've got to make it your identity, your plays, your snaps. That's what Tony Dungy did with those guys. Even though he had Monte Kiffin, he still was very involved on defense and able to pull the trigger if he wanted to. That's where I want to be. … Right now, it is me calling the plays. We'll get a chance to see our identity, see how far we can come."

Eleven months ago, Morris was named defensive coordinator. But before he could serve in that capacity, he was promoted to coach after Jon Gruden was fired. That doesn't change the fact that Morris' expertise is on defense and that he had some clear ideas of how to make the Bucs better on that side of the ball.

Was this a desperate move by a desperate coach worried about getting fired?

Morris, 33, insists it was not.

"In this business, you really can't think about that," he said. "In this business, you've got to coach until they tell you to get out of your office, and that's my mentality."

So Morris pulled the rip cord on Bates, just as he did with offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski only 10 days before the regular-season opener, replacing him with quarterbacks coach Greg Olson.

The difference is the Bucs aren't scrapping a large percentage of what Bates installed. A lot of the matchup coverage concepts — more quarters, man-to-man and less Tampa 2 — were part of the direction Morris wanted for his defense.

Bates has been given the opportunity to remain in a consulting role, breaking down film and eventually helping Morris from the coaches' box. But he didn't travel with the team for today's game in Atlanta.

"What we are is essentially becoming what Raheem wanted us to be when he was defensive coordinator," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "That's what we are. It does feel good because of our presentation of details are back. Some of the things that we were familiar with are back. To me, that's why everybody on the defensive side of the ball has accepted the change. It's because Raheem has made it feel like, 'This is what our identity is.' "

You can argue whether Bates failed the Bucs or the Bucs failed Bates. But there were several things wrong with the defense that Morris thought would result in more points, more yards and more defeats.

The Bucs played a lot of match coverage and were too predictable. That was evident in last week's 38-7 loss to the Saints.

Saints coach Sean Payton, one of the league's top play-callers, frequently used three receivers to the right of the formation with an empty backfield and a tight end and running back on the other side. He knew he could isolate receiver Marques Colston on a seam route one-on-one against linebacker Barrett Ruud.

"Fast guy, big guy against a little guy, slower guy," Morris said.

On the Saints' touchdown drive just before halftime, Colston caught passes of 21, 20 and 16 yards. The problem was that Ruud, who calls all the Bucs' defensive signals, had no way of checking out of the mismatch.

Three weeks ago at Miami, second-year quarterback Chad Henne had no trouble dissecting the coverage during his winning drive in the final 1:40.

"You want to mix it up and make people have to think a little more, make people hit it on the run or hit it on the move rather than identifying it from the beginning," Morris said.

The Bucs gave up 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more in Bates' defense, which puts cornerbacks on an island for 60 plays a game. Morris would like to mix in more Tampa 2.

"There's a fine line between playing 60 pressure plays of really good football and having some other plays where we can get people off their legs and cut how much pressure is on them," Morris said. "Because they'll make plays if they have an opportunity, and I want to give it to them."

The run defense should get a boost, too. Bates' defense did not really enable the Bucs to walk a safety into the tackle box without having coverage responsibilities. Eight-man fronts are key to stopping strong rushing attacks.

"We'll be able to get him down there and have the ability to key the run," Morris said. "We'll have some of those options."

Perhaps the most obvious change will occur on the defensive line, where players will line up in one gap and use quickness to try to penetrate and be disruptive. In Bates' 4-3 scheme, players aligned more directly over a blocker and used size and strength to influence plays while being responsible for two gaps.

"The philosophy behind the move was, No. 1, to have better results," general manager Mark Dominik said. "No. 2, it's to evaluate the personnel we have on this football team we have going forward in a system that's suited for their talents."

Barber admits his bias but said that he has always felt Morris would've made a great defensive coordinator and that there was a different feeling at practice last week. He said Morris was doing what he has always done best, teaching and bringing confidence to his players.

"I've always said good teams assume the identity of their coaches," Barber said. "I think we're assuming Raheem's identity with the way we're going to begin to play this week."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris fine with being 'in the fire' 11/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 28, 2009 7:56pm]
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