TAMPA — Todd Bowles knows it’s tough to slow any player in the NFL if you can’t catch him.
“We wanted more speed, but it had nothing to do from (studying) the films from last year,” the Bucs’ new defensive coordinator said. “We just needed more speed.”
The key to the Bucs keeping pace in the NFC South may be how fast Bowles can improve a defense that allowed an average 29 points per game last season.
Aside from five draft picks for the secondary taken last month and a few free agents, Bowles will have to make-do with what’s already on the roster. But he and others on his staff insist the cupboard wasn’t bare.
“When you come in, you look at it, you see talent,” linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said. “We’re not lacking talent. There’s guys out there that have played and can make plays. So we just have to put them in the best position.
“Go back to Todd’s history, that’s what he’s hung his hat on, to get guys in position to make plays and the defense understanding where you’re going to be. We’re going to be a smart defense. We’re going to attack and play situational football and look for good things.”
Like several Bucs assistants, Bowles played for head coach Bruce Arians at Temple. All he has done is apply Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit,” philosophy to defense.
There are several main tenets to Bowles’ success.
Bring pressure from every angle
The best way to create mistakes and force turnovers is to make the offense go faster than it has prepared to do.
Bowles would love to apply constant pressure on the quarterback using just the front four. But for a team like the Bucs — who had 38 sacks last year, tying for 19th in the league — being average in that department won’t win games. So Bowles will often bring more than the other guys can block. A staple of his pressure package is the double A-gap blitz, where inside linebackers walk to the line of scrimmage to fill the gaps between the guards and center.
Linebacker Devin White, the Bucs’ No. 5 overall draft pick, had 51/2 career sacks at LSU and also could rush from the outside. Lavonte David has 211/2 career sacks and will be used in more blitz packages.
“I got to play with him my last year (in the league, with the Cardinals) in ’14,” outside linebackers coach Larry Foote said of Bowles. “Then he was big-time aggressive. We didn’t have guys that really could get after the passer, so he had to create some type of pressure, so he was real inventive that year.
“He puts it together off what we can do. He’s a thinker. He’s smart. He’s in that same mold of playing for (Hall of Fame defensive coach) Dick LeBeau. I was like, ‘Slow down, Coach. I’m not as smart as you.’ But he understands it.”
By deploying a 3-4 defense, players such as Carl Nassib and Noah Spence — who would be defensive ends in a three-point stance in a 4-3 — will be stand-up edge rushers who can attack the quarterback or drop into coverage. For Spence, it’s a career changer. In a 4-3, he was too small to play the edge except as a designated pass rusher and barely got any reps a year ago.
Defensive backs will be part of the rush hour, too, especially the nickel cornerback and safeties.
“Safeties in Todd’s defense basically run the defense,” safeties coach Nick Rapone said. “They have to call out fronts, but they do have to play multiple positions.”
Bowles values players who can do more than one thing. An edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback or drop into coverage. A linebacker who can blitz off the edge or use his speed to chase down ball carriers in the flat. A safety who can come downhill and thump running backs in the hole, blitz or play centerfield.
That’s what attracted the Bucs to safety Mike Edwards, one of their two third-round picks. Edwards has ball-hawking skills, as evidenced by his career 10 interceptions and 23 pass breakups at Kentucky. He also can play nearly every position in the secondary.
“We thought he had the ability to do everything we wanted,” Rapone said. “First of all, he’s physical. Second of all, he can blitz. Third of all, he can cover. Fourth of all, to the best of our knowledge, he’s cerebral. And a safety in this scheme has to be cerebral.”
Just like Arians was attracted to the Bucs job because Jameis Winston is Tampa Bay’s quarterback, Bowles needed to find the quarterback of his defense and did so with the selection of White.
“It’s important because you really want a quarterback on every level of the defense,” Bowles said. “Up front, in the middle and in the back, and having one in the middle — not that Lavonte (David) wasn’t, because he is and he’s a heck of a player. So we have two in the middle right now, and that makes me comfortable.”
A year ago, teams knew the strength of the Bucs’ defense was inside, so they attacked the perimeter. Even at 6 feet and 238 pounds, White has 4.41-second speed to chase down running backs such as the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey.
But each week, like most good defensive coordinators, Bowles will try to take away a team’s biggest weapon and put each of his players in a position to succeed. Tapping into the skill set of each player and putting him in position to succeed is Bowles’ strength.
“And they’ll play for him. He’s a player’s coach,” Rapone said. “They’ll play for the guy.”
All defenses use a combination of pass coverage, zone and man-to-man. But when you ride or die on applying pressure, you have to play up on receivers at the line of scrimmage and anticipate that the ball will be coming out quickly.
Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis, the starting corners a year ago, are more suited for press man-to-man coverage than zone. That’s a plus. But the Bucs aren’t leaving it to chance. That’s why after White, their next two draft picks were cornerbacks: Central Michigan’s Sean Murphy-Bunting and Auburn’s Jamel Dean.
Bowles insists the draft wasn’t an indictment of the returning cornerbacks. But what also can’t be ignored is that Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead combined to make 40 starts without an interception.
“A lot of them were hurt,” Bowles said. “We drafted good football players. In my opinion, you can’t have enough corners or depth, and the (drafted) players fell right where we had them ranked and we picked them.”
All three defensive backs drafted can really run, which takes us back to the need for speed.
“I don’t think it’s the rule changes. I think it’s the offensive schemes of the game,” Bowles said. “The game has gotten a lot faster, especially out on the perimeter and the edge, where you don’t see as much power running. So there’s a lot of things out on the perimeter where you need a lot of faster guys.”
Most of the Bucs’ talent still resides on offense. The Bucs owned the top passing offense last year and were third in overall offense, averaging 415.5 yards per game.
“On one of these 32 teams, somebody’s going to the Super Bowl, so it doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are, it’s a combination of coaching and talent,” Bowles said. “So we’re going to coach these guys up the best we can. We’re going to get them to play hard, and we’re going to play tough.”