Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense under coach Raheem Morris making strides

Safety Tanard Jackson, mobbed after an interception vs. the Seahawks, is earning praise from Raheem Morris.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Safety Tanard Jackson, mobbed after an interception vs. the Seahawks, is earning praise from Raheem Morris.

TAMPA — No offense to Jim Bates, but how did he last 10 games longer than Jeff Jagodzinski?

If you had a suspicion the Buccaneers and their defensive coordinator were mismatched in the preseason, by now you can be fairly sure that was the case. Bates wanted big defensive linemen. He had none. He wanted bump-and-run defensive backs. He had one.

He wanted his defense to look a certain way in 2009, and instead the unit came dressed in the style of the previous era.

This was a team built for the Tampa 2. A team comfortable in the Tampa 2. Now, that doesn't mean the scheme can't be tweaked, and it doesn't mean the Bucs can't play other styles when the moment calls for it.

But it now seems logical, as the Bucs continue to move forward, that they bring a little of their past with them. And that should probably include the defensive coordinator they hired one year ago this week.

It was Christmas Eve when Jon Gruden promoted Raheem Morris from secondary coach to defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. A month later, Gruden was fired and Morris' career as an NFL defensive coordinator was called on account of promotion.

And so maybe now it's time to revisit that decision. Since Morris took over coordinator duties from Bates a month ago, the Bucs have had a better defense. A much better defense.

They have returned to the one-gap style on the defensive line. They have blitzed far more. They have mixed zone and man-to-man coverages. They have, for brief flashes, looked like the defense of your memories.

Morris has been reluctant to talk too much about schemes or go into detail about differences, but it certainly appears as if the defense has responded to some of the changes in game plans.

"I refuse to take any of that credit for what those men are doing," Morris said. "I think those guys are going out and playing harder, faster, better. I don't want to take anything away from what Geno (Hayes) has been able to do or what these guys have been able to do together. Barrett Ruud has completely picked up his game. Aqib Talib, Tanard Jackson, some of those guys are going to a higher level."

Whatever the reason, the Bucs have a better defense today than they did a month ago. They give up fewer yards, they generate more sacks, they force more turnovers, and, lo and behold, they give up a lot fewer points.

Is this a turning of the corner? A preview of what's to come? That's still to be determined. It has only been a month, and none of those teams the Bucs faced now sports a winning record.

Back before the purge, Bates had to come up with game plans for Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Morris has faced Chris Redman, Matt Moore, Kellen Clemens and Matt Hasselbeck.

If nothing else, give the head coach credit for knowing how to read the schedule.

That's what makes this week's game against New Orleans a better barometer. The Saints were the last straw in Bates' Tampa Bay career. The defense gave up scores on six of the first 10 possessions, and Bates was dismissed 48 hours later.

"You want to define yourself and know how you are playing on defense, you go play the Saints," Morris said. "They will let you know pretty quickly where you are and what you are. There is no doubt in my mind that they are going to have more yardage on us than we expect. We just have to keep them out of the end zone."

Which is exactly the philosophy behind the Tampa 2. The Bucs defense never worried much about giving up yards in the middle of the field, but it prevented quick strikes and forced teams into long drives in hopes they would either stall or have a turnover before reaching the end zone.

And look at the difference in the past four weeks. The defense has yielded more field goals (up from 1.4 to 2.2 per game) but has dramatically cut the number of touchdowns (down from 3.4 to 1.5) from the first 10 games.

Again, this could all be a mirage based on the competition. But it's at least encouraging that the Bucs seem to have rediscovered their identity on defense. And while Morris isn't saying the Tampa 2 will be back in 2010, he dropped hints in that direction.

"We called a bunch of different coverages (Sunday). The Tampa 2 was one of them. We called some quarters and a bunch of different things. I think we had a 3-4 scheme out there a little bit," Morris said. "We want to be known as a team that goes out there and plays fast and hard. You guys know my roots and background. I will be whatever I am if I can get wins like that, whatever you want to define me as."

A month ago, I wrote that Morris' decision to fire Bates seemed like a desperate move. That if he was going down, it was going to be swinging. That hasn't changed.

What is different is that Morris, as the coordinator, has reversed the defense's fortunes. And maybe, if he stays in the job, things won't look so desperate.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

The Morris touch

The Bucs defense has improved in the four games since coach Raheem Morris took over after relieving defensive coordinator Jim Bates of his duties.

Defense Defense

under Bates under Morris

Points 29.4 17.2

Avg. per rush 4.9 4.3

Avg. per pass 7.6 5.7

Sacks per game 1.7 2.2

INTs per game 1.2 1.2

Fumbles 0.4 1.0

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense under coach Raheem Morris making strides 12/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:20am]

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