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Why the Bucs are sticking with Mike Smith as defensive coordinator

There are a lot of reasons why the Bucs believe Smith is the right man to run the defense, but the biggest one is that he's not the only one to blame
Mike Smith's Bucs defense is struggling mightily, but would firing the coordinator solve all of the unit's problems? [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Mike Smith's Bucs defense is struggling mightily, but would firing the coordinator solve all of the unit's problems? [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Oct. 9, 2018

TAMPA — One day after the Bucs' 48-10 loss at Chicago, coach Dirk Koetter asked players for some written feedback on a list of areas that need improvement.

"I kind of compiled all of that into a few thoughts I shared with the team today," Koetter said Monday.

Presumably, none of them recommended firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

Based on numbers alone, a change may seem to be warranted. Smith's defense finished last in the NFL in total yards, sacks (22) and was tied for 22nd in points allowed (23.9) in 2017. Through four games this season, the Bucs rank last this season in scoring defense by allowing 34.8 points per game and 31st in the league with 445.8 yards per game.

So what does it say that after such a dismal performance on defense, Smith still is in charge of that side of the ball as the Bucs return from their bye week?

According to Koetter, it means that the problems are bigger than replacing one assistant coach or player.

"Every week, every game, it's way bigger than any one guy," Koetter said. "It's bigger than me. It's bigger than Mike. It's bigger than Gerald McCoy. It's bigger than any one person. It's a team game. That was my whole point."

Last week, Koetter dealt with the hypothetical of what would happen if he did fire Smith.

"We fire Mike Smith. Okay, then what would the next move be?'' Koetter asked rhetorically.

The implication was that even with former coordinators such as linebackers coach Mark Duffner and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke on the staff, Koetter doesn't believe a change after only four games would make things better.

So what does Koetter know about Smith that makes him believe he still is the best man to turn around the defense?

KOETTER AND SMITH HAVE HISTORY

Smith was defensive coordinator of the Jaguars under head coach Jack Del Rio when Koetter joined the staff as offensive coordinator in 2007.

The Jags were 10th in the NFL in scoring defense that season, allowing 19 points per game. Duffner coached linebackers on that staff. Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken coached receivers.

Although Smith and Koetter only served one season together, the Jaguars went 11-5, upset the Steelers in the AFC wildcard game before losing at New England in the AFC divisional playoff.

That Jags defense was built around two enormous defensive tackles: John Henderson (6 feet 7, 328 pounds) and Marcus Stroud (6-6, 312).  Prior to coming to Jacksonville, Smith coached the defensive line and later linebackers for the Baltimore Ravens (1999-02). Again, it was oversized defensive tackles such as Sam Adams (6-3, 350) and Tony Siragusa (6-3, 330) that helped Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis do his thing. Offenses weren't as pass-oriented as they are in 2018.

Of course, the next seven seasons, Smith was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach. He hired Koetter to be his offensive coordinator from 2012-14.

However, Koetter has said this is not about his history with Smith. "First off, let's get one thing straight: It has zero to do with relationships. Okay?" Koetter said. "None of this is about relationships. This is business.''

Business was good after Smith's first year with the Bucs. Opponents third down conversion was a league-low 33.8 percent. The defense also improved from 23 forced turnovers in 2015 (16th) to 29 (third) in 2016. Smith was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.

NO POSITION IS PLAYING WELL, SO ALL COACHES AND PLAYERS ARE AT FAULT

Despite rebuilding the Bucs defensive line in the off-season, it's under-performed. The Bucs are tied with Atlanta for 26th in sacks with eight. Half of them belong to Jason Pierre-Paul.

"I think we've been quite average,'' defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow because some guys are having to change stuff they've been doing their whole career. But we're trying to get them to understand it's better for the team if they do it that way.''

The secondary has been hit hard by injuries with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte going on injured reserve. Three rookies —cornerbacks Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead — have played prominent roles this season and all are battling injury.

"Every play is a new experience for them,'' Hoke said. "Different offenses. Different guys. Game plans will change and evolve week to week. They're learning as they go and they'll continue to get better. Some of the good plays we saw versus Philly and some of the good plays we saw versus Pittsburgh, they're still there. It's unfortunate a lot of things happened poor in one game.''

IT'S A COLLECTIVE EFFORT

Smith may call the plays, but all coaches on the defensive staff have input. They control their respective positions. For the most part, they determine the rotation, if any, during the game. It's collaborative, even if Smith is the one actually calling the defense.

"I mean, I know how we game plan as a staff,'' Koetter said. "I know how guys coach on the field, just like I know how guys play in practice and sometimes carry it over to the game better than others.

"Shoot, I'm a fan of my son's (football) team or my daughter's volleyball team. Shoot, I talk just like fans when it's my kids. And then I have to check myself on that. You know, the coordinators in the NFL call the plays in. All right? They call the plays in. They help organize the game plan. They don't do the whole game plan themselves.''

Certainly, players have to be held accountable for their performance. But linebacker Lavonte David said there is no lack of confidence in Smith.

"No matter what goes on, Mike Smith is our defensive coordinator,'' David said. "We ride with him no matter what.''

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