I took a long look at quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay passing attack earlier in the week, and now it's time to look at this defense. The Buccaneers' defense is one of the fastest the Eagles will face all season, especially in the front seven. It's a classic Lovie Smith unit. The Bucs play a large amount of zone coverage, don't blitz a ton and play sideline-to-sideline with a relentless style of football. To me, it all starts with the linebacking corps, and the two leading tacklers on this team.
Veteran Lavonte David has turned into one of the best at his position in the entire NFL. A former second-round pick out of Nebraska, David is fast, physical and instinctive. Those three traits are also shared by rookie Kwon Alexander. A fourth-round pick in this year's draft out of LSU, Alexander has been very productive this fall, recording 63 tackles, two sacks, a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, five tackles for loss and seven pass breakups. Needless to say, he's been all over the field. When you look at this Tampa Bay defense, it's impossible to not be impressed by these two guys in the middle.
Here's Alexander, the MIKE linebacker inside, chasing this perimeter run down outside the numbers. Look at how effortlessly he uses his hands to keep himself clean as he sprints past the block from the center and gets outside. He's the definition of a "fast flow" player in the front seven. Both Alexander and David have great speed for the position, but that doesn't just help them in the run game.
This is a zone coverage concept for the Bucs' defense. David comes up to fit the run on this play-action fake by the Saints, then gets to his landmark in coverage. He turns, looks for work, finds the ball and gets it on the ground for the pass breakup. That's a heck of a play in coverage by the linebacker.
It's no secret that one of Tampa Bay's favorite coverage schemes is the "Tampa 2," a version of your basic Cover 2 defense that requires the middle linebacker to open up his hips at the snap to face the passing strength of the offense and run down the seam with the most dangerous threat in the middle of the field.
This is a 3x1 set from the Atlanta Falcons. Alexander is going to match the vertical route from the No. 3 receiver inside. He capitalizes on a bad throw from Matt Ryan and finishes on the pass for an interception, quickly transitioning into a runner and returning it back to midfield.
In the same game, the Falcons were down in the low red zone and again presented a 3x1 formation, this time with Julio Jones as the No. 3 receiver. The Bucs, as they'll do when they're in the red zone, again drop back in Tampa 2 coverage.
This is a concept that's designed to try and beat Cover 2. By bringing the No. 2 receiver inside directly at the linebacker, they're trying to hold him as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, while running Jones down the seam to catch a touchdown in the deep middle of the field. Alexander was having none of that. He stays with Jones down the seam, leaps up and pulls in the interception. This play comes back due to a penalty, but notice the effort by Julio Jones to come and try to tackle Alexander on this near pick-six.
Later in the quarter, the Falcons have the ball again. Julio once again lined up as the No. 3 receiver in a 3x1 set. This time, Atlanta has a packaged-play concept called, where Matt Ryan has to read Alexander. If Alexander stays back in coverage he'll hand the ball off. If he steps up to defend the run, he'll throw the quick slant to Jones. Alexander steps up, Jones makes the catch and he's off to the races. Who catches him from behind? It's Alexander. The rookie not only catches Julio, but steals the ball from his grasp and sprints back the other way, making up for the turnover he lost earlier in the game due to a penalty. That's a fantastic effort-play by the rookie from LSU.
Tampa Bay isn't just fast and athletic at linebacker as it moves really well up front too. To take advantage of their athleticism, the Bucs run a ton of stunts and twists up front, and use these "games" to get penetration in opposing backfields while rushing just four. Coming into this week, the rap on this team was that it struggled to find a pass rush, but I was impressed at the ways it was able to get after opposing quarterbacks.
Let's look at this sack on Drew Brees by cutting the rush in half. First, start on the right side, where an "E/T stunt" gets home. A hard inside stem from the left defensive end Jacquies Smith pulls the right tackle too far inside, and he's unable to get back out to defend the rush from defensive tackle Henry Melton. When you look at the other side, you can see the suddenness from former third overall pick Gerald McCoy, as he slants inside into the A gap and wins off the ball. McCoy's burst and explosion out of his stance make him very tough to block, and this play helps prove it, as he and Melton converge for the sack.
On this play, the Bucs run a "Pirate" stunt, with two looping defensive linemen inside and a defensive tackle looping back outside as a contain player. McCoy, the right defensive tackle, penetrates into the backfield and gets the sack on Cam Newton.
Tampa Bay runs a number of different games up front, sometimes with the intent of getting McCoy free with an open lane to the quarterback, but sometimes those concepts will open up other players to take the glory.
Here's another "E/T stunt" from the Tampa Bay D-Line, this time with defensive end Howard Jones breaking free for the sack. Jones is seen as the penetrator on this play, with McCoy as the looper. As I covered in my chat with defensive end Vinny Curry in an earlier podcast, it often works out that the penetrator, who in essence is giving himself up on the play to make room for the looper, ends up breaking free for the sack. That's exactly what happens here, as Jones, the former D-III star from Shepherd University and NFL Scouting Combine standout, comes up with the stop.
The Bucs blitz more than I thought they would. Their athleticism in the front seven makes them a very effective pressure team. It doesn't always result in sacks (they're middle of the road in the NFL right now with 20 on the season), but they consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. One of their favorite tools in the toolbox of pressure schemes is the use of double A-gap looks with a wide four-man front. We've seen a lot of teams on the Eagles' schedule employ this tactic, and it's certainly something the Eagles' offense will have to be ready for.
This is a great blitz from the Bucs. With a wide defensive front, Tampa Bay lines up its two stud linebackers in the the A gaps over the center. As teams typically do, the Jaguars block it up by assigning the center to one linebacker, and the running back to the other in pass protection. This allows the guards and tackles to fan outwards to block the four defensive linemen. This should look pretty clean protection-wise. And when you look at the first second of action after the snap, you have to be feeling okay if you're Blake Bortles. There's very little threat of pressure in your face. But rewind back to the snap, and you'll see Tampa Bay looping Jones through the A gap.
Why does Jones come free? Why did no one slide inside to pick him up? Because when he looped inside, the Bucs replaced him in that gap with a blitzer from the slot. Jacksonville left tackle Luke Joeckel decided to pick up that rusher off the edge, so he doesn't slide inside to give help to his guard and center. The guard is distracted by the defensive tackle. The center and running back are eaten up by the linebackers. No one has his eyes on Jones. He gets in scot-free on Bortles and picks up the sack. Remember, Jones was one of the most dynamic edge rushers in terms of athleticism in the 2014 NFL Draft. His athletic ability makes him a dangerous chess piece in a pressure scheme.
Tampa Bay will line up in this look a lot when it wants to bring pressure. As you saw in that play, the pressure doesn't always come from the A gaps. With extra defensive backs also in a threatening position off the edge, there's the potential for six to eight rushers on any given play. They can come from all across the formation in any kind of combination. This means you have to be sound in the way you protect if you're the Eagles. It's rare that you'll see the Eagles' offense in an eight- or even a six- or seven-man protection, so sorting through who is coming and who isn't and making sure you can keep the quarterback upright will be a chief concern on Sunday afternoon when the Bucs deploy this look.
Here's another one of these looks from Tampa Bay. This time, the two linebackers their first steps backwards as if they're dropping into coverage. Notice the center and running back are both looking up the middle, so you've taken their attention away from any other area where pressure could be coming from. Look at the next step from Alexander. The rookie fakes as if he's dropping then turns back downhill, beats the guard with a quick swipe of his hands and hones in on Bortles. The quarterback is forced to hold the ball. Another blitzer comes off the edge from the right. This is a player who probably would have been picked up by the running back had he not been worried about potential A-gap pressure, and it's a sack for the Bucs.
This time against Jacksonville, it's the same blitz, but the guard to the side of the pressure recognizes the extra blitzer coming from the slot. That means this time no one is inside to pick up the added linebacker, as Alexander closes in on Bortles for the sack. Double A-gap looks are a big part of what the Bucs like to do in the confines of their pressure scheme, and it's something the Eagles' offense will have to be ready for on Sunday afternoon.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.