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Tampa Bay Buccaneers experiment with 3-4 defense

TAMPA — After spending years crouched in a three-point stance, nothing makes Stylez White light up like a chance to stand up on the edge in the Buccaneers' change-of-pace 3-4 defense.

White doesn't just look forward to it. Tampa Bay's starting right defensive end practically begs coach Raheem Morris to use it.

"It's my favorite defense," said White, who is entering his fourth season. "I try to campaign for it every week. (Morris) doesn't pay me any attention, so I guess I need to work on my seniority.

"But it's fun. I love it."

You might see the Bucs line up in what, for them, is an unconventional defensive front, three down linemen and four linebackers, more often. But it won't be because of White's politicking.

If the Bucs expand from their current occasional use, it will be because it produces big plays. That was the case on the Chiefs' first possession Saturday, when Quincy Black forced a fumble after charging in from his outside linebacker position.

The primary goal, though, is even more basic.

"I love to change things up," said Morris, also the team's defensive coordinator. "It creates problems, makes (teams) have to work on different things. It's kind of like the Wildcat offense. If it's something you can do and it's something your guys feel comfortable doing, you do it. Then you make the 3-4 package grow if it has success. If it doesn't, you leave it alone and you tend to get away from it.

"But we've been having some success with it."

When the Bucs go to a 3-4, Black, usually the strongside outside linebacker, becomes the left outside linebacker, lining up not far from where a left defensive end would normally be.

White becomes the right outside linebacker. Left defensive end Kyle Moore slides inside and lines up as one of three down linemen, head up on the right tackle. Gerald McCoy lines up across from the left tackle while Roy Miller is the nose tackle, smack in the middle.

The formation is particularly difficult for offenses to react to because:

• The Bucs typically can switch to a 3-4 using their usual 4-3 personnel. That gives them the element of surprise with the offense unaware of the change until just before the snap. "It creates some confusion," Black said. "When you go out there and line up in that front, you hear (the offense) yelling out '3-4! 3-4!' I kind of stand back and say, 'Okay, I think we got 'em.' "

• The Bucs are primarily a 4-3 team with four down linemen and three linebackers. Thus, offenses tailor their pass protection and run blocking accordingly. "When we hit them with that 3-4 defense and they see the ends standing up, they don't know if the ends are coming (toward the quarterback) or dropping (into coverage)," Moore said. "They don't know if the down linemen are looping or stunting or doing something else."

All this is the sort of stuff that keeps offensive coordinators up at night — or so Morris hopes.

"Any time I have the ability to take away a practice snap from (an opponent) and make you work on our 3-4 rather than the other things we do, it's something that can help us kill your practice time," he said.

Morris unveiled the 3-4 on a limited basis last season. But after taking a whole offseason to study and refine it, he and his players say they are better prepared and more effective using it. Morris also consulted with coaches around the league who use the defense on a full-time basis, looking for pointers.

But a major part of using the formation is knowing when to use it. Often, Morris will use it to get aggressive.

"You want to pick and choose," Morris said. "You don't have to blitz out of it every time, but I use it as a weapon."

As with anything, there are risks to using the 3-4.

First, when facing a team that features the 3-4, their offenses are likely skilled in attacking it. Also, the Bucs still employ mainly a traditional 4-3 defense built on the Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin Tampa 2 principles. Getting away from it too often, Morris admits, could result in some slippage.

But the aptitude of some of the team's young defenders, Morris said, allows him to challenge them.

"We've drafted so many young, fast, smart athletes — guys that care — it makes it easier to go in the meeting room and install stuff," he said.

"Guys lock in and are more detailed. I'm not saying we're at the point where the Patriots were a few years ago where they would come out and feature (the 3-4) in a whole game and then come out the following game and go back to the 4-3."

Then again, Morris wouldn't rule that out in the future, either.

"With all our guys, if you go in there and you present something new, they're going to jump all over it and work really hard at it," he said.

"They love to go out there and be creative."

Enough, it seems, to beg for the opportunity.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers experiment with 3-4 defense 08/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 10:56pm]
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