TAMPA — Mike Smith knows something about the NFC South and the stockpile of talented quarterbacks in the division. So the former Falcons coach promised Wednesday to bring a "flexible'' defense with "multiple looks'' to the Bucs as defensive coordinator, something that would be a departure from the staid Tampa 2.
"Is there any other division in the National Football League that has quarterback play like you have here in the NFC South?" Smith said during his introductory news conference at One Buc Place. "As a defensive coordinator, you're going to have some sleepless nights and some long game-planning days."
So will the Bucs' rivals, who will have to deal with rookie of the year finalist Jameis Winston, a chief reason why Smith said he decided to make his return to the NFL on coach Dirk Koetter's staff after a year away from the game.
"The great thing about it is, those defensive coordinators on those other teams are going to have the same thing with Jameis and Dirk putting together our game plan," Smith said.
Smith, 56, arrived in Atlanta the same time as quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008 and took the Falcons to the playoffs four times in his first five years before being fired in 2014 after consecutive losing seasons. He spent a year away from football writing a motivational book, You Win in the Locker Room First, and working as a consultant to league officials. He interviewed for the Giants' and Dolphins' coaching jobs but said the only place he considered going to as a coordinator was Tampa Bay.
"I'm very excited because of my relationship with Dirk," Smith said. "We had an opportunity to work in Jacksonville together as coordinators, and then he was my (offensive) coordinator there in Atlanta."
Smith knows he has his work cut out for him. He referenced defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David as core players on a defense that finished 10th overall last season in the 32-team league but 26th in points allowed, giving up an average 26.1 per game.
Smith said the Bucs will remain primarily a 4-3 team but will mix up fronts and coverage in order to combat quarterbacks such as Ryan, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Panthers' Cam Newton.
"It's going to be very flexible. I think in this day and age, you have to give different looks," Smith said. "You can't line up in the same look and the same front every time. So we're going to have a lot of flexibility and identify what players are capable of doing and try to give different looks to the quarterback. Because if the quarterback has time in this league, he's going to be a guy who's going to be able to cut you up. So we've got to do a very good job of putting together a package that is flexible, multiple, yet simple for our players and complex to the quarterback and the opposing coaching staff.
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"We're going to base out of a four-man front. But again, if you play in a four-man front, you overshift and you're in a 3-4. If you start in a 3-4 and you overshift, you're in a 4-3."
Smith will be a good resource for Koetter. They worked as coordinators for the Jaguars for five seasons, and Koetter rejoin Smith for three years as the offensive coordinator with the Falcons.
Smith praised Koetter for forming a solid defensive staff that includes former Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, linebackers coach Mark Duffner and new defensive backs coach Jon Hoke.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes last season against a revolving door of defensive backs in the Bucs' Tampa 2 scheme. The Bucs also should see fewer penalties under Smith, whose Falcons teams had the fewest flags in the NFL three seasons in a row.
"In terms of what you do on the back end, you have a lot more flexibility," Smith said.
"Ultimately, as a defensive coach you're going to be judged on how many points you give up. That's the bottom line. It's not yards, it's not rushing yards, it's not passing yards, and it's not sacks. Ultimately, it's about keeping them out of the end zone."