TAMPA — Look closely and you might see the Bucs aren't who you think they are.
For a team that pioneered the use of the pass coverage that bears its name — Tampa 2 — the Bucs of today rarely use the tactic that for so long was the basic tenet of their defense.
Watch the secondary today and you'll see left cornerback Aqib Talib locked in old-fashioned man-to-man battles with the NFL's most skilled receivers. You'll see diminutive right cornerback Ronde Barber — a player many consider functional only in the Tampa 2 — using anticipation and exemplary technique to make up for a lack of size and speed in single coverage.
It's not at all what you might expect, but this is the new breed of Bucs defense. And, it seems, they wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's a great challenge," Barber said. "This is a lot more fun than what I did for the first 12 years of my career."
It's like nothing Barber or anyone else has seen in recent memory.
"We're playing more man coverage than we have in probably a decade," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said.
Here's the rationale: "With this team, right here and right now, man coverage is what works for us," said nickelback E.J. Biggers, who estimated the Bucs are using man-to-man coverage on well over half their snaps.
The Bucs still blend a variety of coverages, including the zone-based Tampa 2, or Cover 2 as it's commonly called. Cover 3 and quarters coverage remain in the playbook, too. Each of those requires defenders to cover assigned zones rather than challenging receivers one-on-one.
But more and more, the personality of coach Raheem Morris — also the defensive coordinator — is showing in his play-calling. Morris prefers to stay on the attack, opting to get in opponents' faces rather than taking a passive approach. He began using it since taking over the defense late in the 2009 season, but his use of single coverage lately has been more extensive.
Previous methods worked. Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, the former head coach and defensive coordinator who first implemented the Tampa 2 in the mid 1990s, had much success.
But a philosophical change is afoot.
"This wasn't Monte's ideology," said Barber, who was drafted in 1997. "(Kiffin) wanted to play safe, keep everything in front of you and then tackle. That has its own merits, but Rah's a lot more aggressive as a play-caller."
That aggressive mind-set includes more blitzes, which Kiffin rarely employed. Even when the Bucs don't blitz, they often stack the line of scrimmage with defenders to stop opposing running backs. In those cases, Morris must be willing to live with less coverage on the back end, putting his cornerbacks in all-or-nothing predicaments.
But with the recent improvement in the pass rush and the skill sets of the team's defensive backs, the Bucs believe they have the advantage.
"We have defensive linemen who can get off the ball, we have linebackers who know how to blitz and we have (defensive backs) who know how to play man coverage," Talib said. "So, we're just using what we've got to our advantage."
Still, the Bucs won't always opt for man-to-man coverage. They didn't in the season opener against Detroit and feared receiver Calvin Johnson. That day, the Bucs played mostly Tampa 2. And when the Saints visit on Oct. 16, maybe the Bucs don't tempt quarterback Drew Brees with one-on-one coverage.
But in matchups where using single coverage is preferable, it has been successful. In the past two games, against the Falcons and Colts, there was extensive use of man-to-man coverage. Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Curtis Painter completed 55 and 43 percent of their attempts, respectively — both below average for NFL starters. When defenders are in proper position, there is precious little room for quarterbacks to deliver the ball. Against zones, there often are bigger windows.
It has worked, plus Morris' players embrace playing man coverage. Even one who has spent his career playing a different style of defense.
"I'm having a lot more fun playing in Rah's defense than in Monte's, for sure," Barber said. "That's just because me and Rah's personalities are a lot more similar. I would have played just like we're playing now. You can do so much more with it.
" … It's fun to be around a bunch of talented guys who don't mind being challenged with play calls. I really like it."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.