Bucs Defense: Five Issues and Answers

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Bucs Defense: Five Issues and Answers
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

That’s about the best way to describe the Bucs defense heading into the 2009 season.

Gone are the players that turned the Bucs from former misfits to Super Bowl champions back at the start of the Jon Gruden era back in 2003 (was it that long ago?). Sapp, McFarlane, Brooks, Lynch, Jackson—all gone.

Defensive guru Monte Kiffin? Gone, sitting in a press box at Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee when he isn’t trying to convince high school kids to play for his son.

This is a season of transition for the Bucs and the Tampa Two defensive scheme. Certainly remnants of the defense will stay the same, but the players that made it work are gone, and most of the NFL has caught up to it.

The NFL is a copycat league and the masterpiece that was assembled by Kiffin and former coach Tony Dungy is used in part by every team in the NFL. Now it’s up to new defensive coordinator Jim Bates to come up with a new wrinkle. He’ll play the same 4-3 defense that Kiffin employed, but he needs to find the players that can make it work. The Tampa 2 wouldn’t have worked without a unit of Pro Bowlers that meshed at the right time.

Bates is under the gun, coaching for a new head coach who has never done anything above coaching the Bucs defensive backs. Bates has plenty of experience and is ironically a graduate of the University of Tennessee where Kiffin now runs the defense. Finding playmakers from a motley list is Bates’ biggest call right now.

1. Is Bates Ready to Step into Monte Kiffin’s Shoes?

No one can question Bates’ experience. He has been all over the league and served as defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins from 2000 through 2004, when he served an interim head coach, which, technically gives him more experience coaching than Morris.

He was almost named head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, but his time in Denver in 2007 was a disappointment. He sat out all of last year.

Bates uses a scheme with pass-rushing defensive ends who plug the middle and linebackers who can fly all over the field. The system has worked in other places, but he’ll need plenty of help from untested youngsters and rookies.

Look for third-round pick Roy Miller, a run stopper out of Texas, to be huge in this scheme, and keep an eye on Jermaine Phillips who is moving from safety to Derrick Brooks’ spot at linebacker.

2. Can Phillips Make the Transition Despite Replacing a Future Hall of Famer?

Brooks played at 6'0" and 235 pounds, and had the speed that Bates would love in this scheme. Unfortunately that speed diminished. He had no sacks last season, so Phillips is his replacement. He is bigger at 6'2", 220.

He has speed but no experience at linebacker. He has always had the ability to come into the box and stop the run on occasion, but now he has to do it on a regular basis against linemen who outweigh him by more than 100 pounds.

Phillips isn’t a kid anymore. He’s 30 and it might take some time that the Bucs don’t have for him to learn a new position. He’ll play on the weak side and be helpful on passing downs, but it will be interesting to see how he does against the run, since the Bucs were getting beaten off the line of scrimmage last season.

3. Is it Time to Consider Gaines Adams a Bust?

No, give him another year. Adams, a defensive end, was the fourth pick overall in the 2007 NFL draft and hasn’t lived up to expectations. He’s gotten a reputation as someone who needs to be coaxed into the weight room but he has shown flashes of brilliance.

He’s also shown flashes of laziness. If he weren’t drafted so high in 2007, he’d be considered a solid lineman. But the tag of fourth overall pick comes with a lot of expectations, and Adams hasn’t met them. Bates’ system calls for the defensive ends to be in the quarterback’s face and Adams will need to pick it up a notch.

Still, Adams started to introduce himself to NFL quarterbacks at the end of last season and even scored two touchdowns on interception returns. This is a pivotal year for Adams to justify his lofty draft selection, and to hold onto his position on a team clearly going through a transition.

4. Is Ronde Barber Still an Every-Down Player?

Barber represents all that the Bucs' defense used to be. Physical, hard-working on every down, and a total devotee to Kiffin and his scheme. Now, Barber is about the only thing left from the Super Bowl year.

He’s been with the Bucs since the first days of the pewter uniforms. Still, it’s strange that he didn’t go away with the spring purge that sent Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Kato June, Joey Galloway and Jeff Garcia packing. Morris coached the Bucs secondary, so he obviously feels a closeness to Barber, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Barber joined his brother in the broadcast booth in 2010.

Barber has lost a step, but he knows the defense the way they used to play it in Tampa. He is a total locker room leader in a room that was splintered last year, and it’s likely that he was kept to be a role model for hothead second-year cornerback Aqib Talib.

Talib has already shaken up the camp after brawling with left tackle Donald Penn that led to helmet-swinging last week.

Morris is a ray of sunshine and kind of looked the other way with Talib, but don’t be surprised if Barber has been assigned to keep Talib on good behavior. There is no player in the NFL better suited for that role, and if Barber doesn’t intercept a pass all season and Talib turns into a Pro Bowler, that’s enough excuse to keep Barber for another year.

5. Will Roy Miller Turn Out To Be the Steal of the 2009 Draft?

Don’t be surprised.Miller is a better version of McFarlane and—hold your breath—might remind some Bucs fans of Warren Sapp. Okay, he’s only 6'1" and not the quickest player in the NFL, but neither was Sapp. Miller dominated the Big 12 last season, and was as shocked as anyone that he wasn’t drafted until the third round. He’s bringing a grudge to Tampa Bay.

The best part is there won’t be a harder worker in the weight room than Miller. He’s added 30 pounds since playing his last down at Texas, and has a great attitude. He is a natural leader and uses his lack of height to his advantage. He uses his leverage like a wrestler.

Miller won’t start from Day One. The run stoppers for now are Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims. Hovan is a lock to start, but Sims has been a bust for most of his career and had only 16 tackles last season. Sims is at the top of the depth chart but it shouldn’t take much for Miller to take over at the midway point, especially if the Bucs stumble out of the gate.

 

LAST-SECOND SHOT: It’s interesting that the Bucs play only one game against an NFC South opponent until Week 11. Then they play five of the final seven games inside the division.

By that time, the Bucs will either be fighting for a playoff spot, which would make for a very interesting end to the season, or they’ll be playing out the string while New Orleans, Carolina, and Atlanta battle it out. The Bucs will either be going for a title, or be roadkill by Nov. 22, when the stretch starts.

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