TAMPA — His players call him a mastermind, but Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles shrugs off the label, saying Tampa Bay’s emergence as one of the NFL’s top defenses is just a result of players growing into their roles in the second year of his elaborate 3-4 scheme.
“Believe me, we’re no masterminds over here at all,” Bowles said this week. “We just try to coach good football and good football players. We work hard every week. Sometimes you have a good game plan and it sucks, and sometimes you have a bad game plan and it works out well. We’re just going to keep grinding and working. We have a lot of kinks to still work out. We try to win while doing it.”
Bowles would prefer to be matter-of-fact about it, but after three games, the Bucs defense ranks second in the league in average yards allowed per play. Last season, they set a foundation by building the best run defense. Now, the Bucs' young pass defense — made up entirely of players 24 and younger — has caught up.
Combine that with a scheme that gives all eleven players on the field a chance to shine by playing a role in the pass rush, and strategy that puts each in a position to succeed, and it’s no wonder the defense is so aptly singing the praises of its coordinator.
“I’ve been saying this since he came here, I love playing for Todd Bowles,” third-year cornerback Carlton Davis said. “He allows us to showcase our different abilities, and that’s something that you won’t see in every coordinator’s scheme. It’s like a birthday gift. You never know what’s coming.”
Said 11-year veteran Jason Pierre-Paul: “Todd Bowles just does a great job of getting everybody a piece of the ball and seeing the ball, go get it. I just think guys just trust him. We trust the plays that he’s going to call are going to get us where we need to get, and so far it’s getting us one step closer to where we want to get.”
Bowles' defense asks players to be versatile and take on different responsibilities from one play to another. He credits head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht for bringing in players who fit his scheme, but he’s also done a good job of bringing those players along gradually since he arrived with Arians last season.
The Bucs' main offseason goal was to keep the defense intact to continue that growth. So far this season, the result is remarkable.
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“I think it goes both ways, for sure,” Arians said. “You never want to put so much stuff in that they’re thinking (too much). Todd does a great job of having just enough that’s different and still the base stuff is there. Guys have good recall, and I think it’s just been a good collaboration between trusting each other.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” safety Mike Edwards said. “He’s just a mastermind. He calls the right calls at the right time and just sets us up perfectly to just go and make the plays. He sets us up in the right spot to make the plays … He just has it all there, and on different downs he mixes (the blitzes) in, so it keeps the quarterback and offensive coordinator on his toes.”
Few teams have gotten to the quarterback more. The Bucs are tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks, including 11 in the past two games.
Yes, they blitz a lot. The Bucs' 43.8 blitz percentage — the percentage of plays they send more than four pass rushers — is third-highest in the league behind only Pittsburgh (51.2) and Baltimore (45.9). And in the Bucs' six-sack performance during Sunday’s 28-10 win over Denver, they blitzed 60 percent of the time, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
While the Bucs rush the quarterback often, their success has more to do with creating the illusion of pressure and confusing offenses about when and from where the rush is coming.
“Every week is different for us,” Bowles said. “We can dial it up or we can dial it back depending on who we’re playing and how we game plan. It’s just a matter of understanding what we do and taking care of what we have to do to win the ballgame.”
In Sunday’s game, there were several times when Bowles lined inside linebacker Lavonte David on the edge like an outside linebacker. On occasion, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul lined up inside as a down lineman, sometimes next to his edge rushing counterpart, Shaquil Barrett. Inside linebacker Devin White often charges the "A" gap up the middle, and rookie safety/cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. frequently comes off the edge.
“Once you get it down as far as the disguising and stuff like that, the game is real fun because you get the quarterback to hold the ball,” David said. “And it opens up sacks for guys with the rush we got and everything works hand in hand.”
There might be no play that illustrates the disguises and deception that Bowles' defense presents as much as David’s third-quarter interception.
On the play, the Bucs give the look of an all-out blitz on second-and-13, with eight defenders in the box, including seven on the line of scrimmage.
It turned out not to be a blitz at all, but the play still pressured Broncos quarterback Jeff Driskel into a turnover.
When the ball is hiked, both inside linebackers — David and White — peel off into coverage, as cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr. rush from the outside.
Then, defensive tackles Will Gholston and Vita Vea drop back, leaving the Broncos' center and guards with no one to block.
But the edges are overwhelmed, with the two corners joining outside linebackers Pierre-Paul and Anthony Nelson. With just four defenders rushing the passer, they collapse on Driskel, and Nelson hits his arm as he rushes a throw high into the air and into the waiting arms of David — one of the six men initially on the line of scrimmage — five yards downfield.
“It’s a chess match,” David said. “You try to give offenses a certain look that they may think we’re in, and then he’ll come back and he’ll get another look that we want to be in. The main thing is you want to get them off balance to make them throw in the direction you want them to throw in, and that’s the main thing.”
Added Davis: “I just love playing for him. He’s like the coordinator I’ve never had before. To have his aggressive play-calling (and) to have his way of thinking with us — it’s almost like we’re unbeatable at times.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.