Bucs' poor defense has coordinator Mike Smith on shaky ground

Times (2016) Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith has a unit that is near the bottom of the league in several categories.
Times (2016) Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith has a unit that is near the bottom of the league in several categories.
Published Dec. 7, 2017

TAMPA — The last time the Bucs' defense was this bad, somebody got fired.

It allowed too many points per game. It was one of the very worst in the NFL on third down. It gave up more yards per play than almost any other team in the league. The ball was thrown over its head.

Lovie Smith, head coach and defensive coordinator at the time, was shown the door.

Should current defensive coordinator Mike Smith be spared the same fate?

"This is a no-excuse business,'' Mike Smith said Wednesday.

Only the Glazer family can say for sure. But you have to wonder that if the Bucs' owners are inclined to keep head coach and offensive play caller Dirk Koetter for 2018, would it be on the condition that he part with his defensive coordinator and good friend? And what would Koetter do if asked to fire Smith?

RELATED: Injured Doug Martin, Robert Ayers return to full Bucs practice.

With four games left in the season — the Bucs host the Lions on Sunday — Smith's numbers are startlingly similar to, and in some cases worse than, the ones Lovie Smith's defense posted when he was ousted after the 2015 season.

This season the Bucs are last in the 32-team league in third-down percentage, allowing teams to convert 48 percent of their chances. In '15 they were 30th at 46 percent. This season the Bucs are last by allowing an average 6 yards per play. In '15 they were 25th at 5.2 yards per play. This season the Bucs are allowing 24 points per game, tied for 21st. In '15 they allowed 26.1, 26th.

Mike Smith's defense also has problems rushing the passer. The Bucs have 17 sacks this season. That wasn't a problem in Smith's final season, when they had 38.

Koetter responded Wednesday to whether Mike Smith is to blame for the poor defense.

"That's so hard to judge because there's nothing about football that boils down to one person,'' he said. "It's on me. It's on him. It's on everybody.

"Again, it's the ultimate team game. No number measures one player or one coach. That's hard to do. Everybody is graded. I tell the team all the time: We're all held accountable by somebody. … But the ultimate thing is it's a team game. We're trying to win, and when you don't win, nobody feels good.''

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Nobody feels worse than Mike Smith, who hasn't just forgotten how to coach defensive football.

As defensive coordinator in Jacksonville from 2003-07, his defenses got better each year, finishing 11th, eighth, sixth, second and first overall.

Has the game passed the 58-year-old by?

Hardly. He was a two-time coach of the year with the Falcons. His defense does not look predicable and outdated, the way Lovie Smith's Cover 2 zone scheme simply got figured out. Each week, Mike Smith has developed game plans with multiple looks to attack the opponent. Some have worked, but eight out of 12 times, they have failed.

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Injuries have been factor. Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David missed significant time at the start of the season. Noah Spence's season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3 took away the Bucs' only legitimate threat as an edge rusher. The Bucs' best pass defender, Brent Grimes, has missed games.

But, as Mike Smith says, no excuses.

"The biggest stat that we always want to concern ourselves with is (whether) we got to do everything we have to do this week to win,'' he said. "The dynamics of a football team change week to week. They change during a game. You like to look at the markers and say these are the things we're progressing in. But we've taken a step backwards in regards to some of those markers.''

RELATED: No, really: How the Bucs (4-8) can still make the playoffs.

Mike Smith was a hot head coaching candidate who interviewed for the Giants job two years ago, and last offseason he was a candidate in Jacksonville and San Diego. But he withdrew his name from consideration when the Bucs signed him to a multiyear deal in January.

"For the next couple years, I am fully committed and focused on my role with Dirk and the organization, and will not be pursuing head coaching opportunities during this time,'' he said upon signing the new agreement.

It's unclear whether his contract prevents him from seeking another NFL head coaching job, but one way for the Bucs to sever ties would be if he was hired away.

"I'm not going to speak to my contract, guys,'' Smith said. "My focus is real simple. I got to get these guys to finish football games so we can win and not fall apart in an overtime situation like we did this past week (against the Packers), and for me, the long term is the rest of this season finishing strong. My commitment is to make this defense the best it can be.''

The only question is, how much time will he get to finish the job?

Up next

vs. Lions, 1 Sunday, Raymond James Stadium

TV/radio: Fox; 97.9-FM

Line/OU: Off