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Coaching Carousel 2016: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A detailed look at the impact of Dirk Koetter's promotion to head coach and Mike Smith's hiring as defensive coordinator. 

No Love for Lovie

The Buccaneers surprised many by firing Lovie Smith after just two seasons. On one hand, any coach that wins a total of 8 games in two seasons can hardly feel secure. On the other hand, the Bucs improved from 2-14 in Smith's first season to 6-10 last year, and seemed on the right track given the strong rookie play by 1st overall pick Jameis Winston. Yet, ownership dismissed Smith with very little explanation. The team quickly moved to promote Dirk Koetter from offensive coordinator to head coach, and the team added veteran defensive leadership in Mike Smith as the new defensive coordinator.

Since the Glazers never gave us an explanation for Smith's firing (other than the team's poor record), let's consider a few possible reasons:

  • Poor overall record -- As we've established, the Bucs won 8 games in two seasons
  • A disappointing finish to the 2015 season -- Although the Bucs won 6 games (vs 2) last year, they lost their final four games and gave up 119 points
  • Defensive disappointment -- Lovie took over the defensive play-calling last season yet success was fleeting. The team finished 26th in points allowed
  • Lack of discipline -- The Bucs set a franchise record for penalties last season
  • Coveting Koetter -- The Buccaneers clearly feared losing OC Koetter to another team, perhaps for one of the open head coaching jobs

In reality, it was likely the confluence of all these issues that led to Smith's departure. Regardless of the reasons, the Buccaneers are set to move on with Koetter at the helm, and will turn the defense over to Mike Smith -- who was the head coach in Atlanta while Koetter served as offensive coordinator.
 

What to Expect On Offense -- SAME SYSTEM, MORE AGGRESSIVE APPROACH

Koetter will continue to call plays, and build off the system he implemented last year. He calls his offense the "Four Verticals", referring to his preference to spread the opposing defense horizontally at the line only to then test the defense vertically. There are a number of good breakdowns of his approach on the Web, but I would highlight last year's article from Bucs Nation:

While some offenses are designed to move the chains at a 6-8 yard clip, 4 Verts is designed to eat up chunk yardage of 15 or more at a time, albeit at a less consistent rate. It's designed to have an answer for every look a defense can show: single-high safety, double high (cover 2), cover 3, and even cover 4 (quarters). For example, if a defense is in cover 2 each safety essentially gets split by two receivers, or as Koetter describes it, "two on one on the half-field safety." In other words, it stresses a safety horizontally and forces a choice on who to cover - the ball goes to whoever he doesn't, making them responsible for covering sideline to sideline in deep coverage. From here, the concept is tweaked in a multitude of ways giving the QB an answer for any coverage he sees, including stretching defenses horizontally in the intermediate and short areas of the field. It also consistently forces safeties to stay deep which can open up running lanes. 

Although the system (and the play-caller) remain the same, Koetter is promising more aggressive play-calling now that he's the head coach:
 

“When you’re the head coach and you’re the play-caller, you have a license to be a little bit more aggressive,” Koetter said. “That’s how I was when I was a high school coach, as a college coach. That comes from inside me, because you have the power to decide if you’re going for it on fourth-and-1 or throw it deep three times in a row or give it to Doug Martin three times in a row. You don’t have to worry about the head coach second-guessing you; you are the head coach. So you make your game plan and you stick to your game plan.

Koetter was quick to point out that former coach Lovie Smith in no way hindered his aggressiveness as a coordinator last year, when the Bucs threw the ball 81 more times than they ran it. "I want to make sure that that’s a clear point that I make, because I’ve heard that in passing different times,” Koetter said. “In no way — in no way — did Lovie Smith tell me as an offensive coordinator, ‘Do and don’t do this.’ Lovie Smith was as supportive for me as a head coach could be. Lovie told me what kind of offense he wanted to have, and we tried to emulate that thought. I’m not making this up in any fashion. Lovie did not hold us back in any way. Lovie was awesome to work for in that respect.”

The personnel is largely unchanged from a season ago, so the main difference this year will likely come from the natural maturation of Jameis Winston in his second season. It's entirely rational to expect a starting quarterback to make a major leap from their first to second seasons, and the entire team will also benefit from a 2nd year of experience with the playbook. The only flies in the ointment relate to the offensive line (is it improved?) and a lack of depth at the receiver position.

What To Expect On Defense -- More Flexibility

I've seen a lot of people disparage the Mike Smith hire, citing the Falcons mediocre defensive showings while he was the Falcons head coach. While statistically the Falcons defenses were milquetoast, it's important to remember that Smith truly delegated the defensive game-planning and play-calling to Mike Nolan and Brian Van Gorder. Smith may have been guilty of hiring sub-par lieutenants, but that's not a concern in Tampa where his sole responsibility will be coaching the defense. It's important to remember that Smith landed the Falcons head coaching job because of his exemplary work as the Defensive Coordinator in Jacksonville.

  • Average Yards Allowed Ranking (2003-2007) -- 7.4
  • Average Points Allowed Ranking (2003-2007) -- 9.0
  • His teams ranked in the top 6 in yards allowed three of five seasons
  • The Jaguars ranked in the top 10 in points allowed in four of five seasons
Schematically, Smith has generally used a 4-3 defensive front but encouraged Van Gorder to mix in 3-4 looks in the final few seasons in Atlanta. He plans on sticking with a 4-3 base look with the Buccaneers, but promises different looks to confuse opposing quarterbacks.

"It's gonna be very flexible," Smith said. "I think in this day and age you have to get different looks. 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 we're going to identify what the players are capable of doing and try to give different looks to the quarterback. Because if a quarterback has time in this league, he's going to be a guy that's going to be able to cut you up. So we've gotta do a very good job of putting together a package that is flexible, multiple, yet simple for our plays and complex for the quarterback and the opposing coaching staff."

"We're going to base out of a four-man front. But again when you play with a four-man front, you over shift and you're in a 3-4. You start in a 3-4, you over shift and you're in a 4-3. There's not a whole lot of difference in terms of what you do, it's a matter of how you're going to put your shell in the back-end. And I think that's the thing that you have to do, you have to give the quarterback different looks. Your front, there's only so many things you can do."

Personnel Matters

Lovie Smith was done no favors by a front office that focused on offense in the prior two drafts, but this offseason the team made defense a priority. Smith will have a more enticing defensive roster to build around:

  • Defensive Ends Robert Ayers (Free Agent) and Noah Spence (Rookie)
  • Linebacker Daryl Smith (Free Agent)
  • Cornerbacks Brent Grimes (Free Agent), Vernon Hargreaves (Rookie), Josh Robinson (Free Agent) and Ryan Smith (Rookie)

Summary

The Buccaneers aren't making wholesale changes on offense, so expect changes to be driven by the natural maturation of Jameis Winston, and Koetter's promise to be more aggressive in certain game situations. The personnel remains largely unchanged, as does the scheme. On defense, while the team will continue to use a 4-3 base, Mike Smith promises to have a different approach from Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier. Mike Smith has preached flexibility, and will try to confuse opposing defenses with different pre- and post-snap looks. Smith benefits from a bolstered defense roster, which should yield fruit particularly if they can adjust to the new "bend but don't break" approach that defined Smith's successful Jaguars defenses in the early 00s.