Tampa Bay has returned to its roots this year, resurrecting the Tampa-2 defense that Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin brought and perfected here, with then-assistant Lovie Smith watching closely, and eventually using and tinkering with. But even though the scheme is very recognizable, and can even be somewhat predictable (the point of emphasis here is keeping things simplified so guys can react and get to the ball quicker), there are some new faces thrown into the mix.
All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy remains the focal point of the defensive line, but he now has some help in the way of an inside pass rusher in Clinton McDonald, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks this past year. McCoy’s improved his get-off even more, if that’s possible, and next to McDonald, these two could form one of the best interior defensive lines in the league.During camp practices, running backs didn’t have a lot of success rushing inside, and there were times when McCoy got to quarterback Josh McCown, in what would have been sacks had he been allowed to take his quarterback to the ground.
Second-year DT Akeem Spence, the starting nose tackle last year, has shown improvement this year and is the likely backup to McDonald. And interestingly, the depth chart lists defensive end Da’Quan Bowers as the backup to McCoy. Head coach Lovie Smith said that’s due to Bowers’ versatility.
“It’s along that ‘don’t put too much into it,'” said Smith. “I think Da’Quan Bowers has flexibility to play a couple of different spots. We could’ve also listed him at the defensive end position, which he will play. I see him with the possibility of playing the three technique, especially in passing downs. He should be better at it in passing downs and then maybe a first-and-second-down defensive end.”
Michael Johnson is the starting right defensive end, taking on the Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Simeon Rice role that was crucial to making every great Tampa-2 defense what it was, in dominating the left tackle and getting to the quarterback.
On the right side, Adrian Clayborn is listed as the starter. Clayborn mostly lined up on the opposite side last year (he sometimes would move to the left side) but due to Johnson’s signing he was relegated to the left. Naturally, this position may be harder for him to play due to Erb’s Palsy, which made his right arm naturally weaker, due to nerve damage. Opposing teams may try to chip him with a tight end but right now, it’s his job to lose.
It should also be noted that Clayborn has gotten some reps at defensive tackle too in practice.
“He’s been taking reps there all throughout [camp],” Smith said, alluding to it being more of an experiment and evaluating talent. “Sometimes you’re a defensive end. Defensive ends are a lot quicker; you put them inside, you could get a couple of plays when they go against some of the bigger, slower interior linemen.”
Next, you have second-year defensive end Steven Means, a pass-rushing specialist, backing up Johnson and William Gholston backing up Clayborn, with Bowers likely to get some reps in there too.
All-Pro Lavonte David is unquestionably the starting weakside linebacker, and looks to carry the torch for some of the greats, like Derrick Brooks, who played in this system before him. Not much in his role seems to have changed, other than it’s more simplified than Schiano’s scheme, meaning he can utilize his natural instincts more. His backup, Danny Lansanah has shown some good things in camp, including an interception on an overthrown by McCown.
Brandon Magee is another one to keep an eye out for. A dual-sport athlete who ultimately chose the NFL over professional baseball, had an interception off McCown early on in camp, and has shown to be very physical against the run.
Mason Foster will start as the middle linebacker and will wear the helmet. His responsibilities in this system mean he has to cover a lot more of the field (he lost about seven pounds this offseason to account for this) and sit back more in coverage than he did previously. His challenger is Dane Fletcher, a special teams ace who’s showed he can deliver a real blow in camp went he collided with running back Jeff Demps a few practices ago.
Jonathan Casillas returns as the strongside linebacker, although he’ll be on the field the least among the linebacking group due to the natural tendency for team’s to now play about 50-percent of their defensive snaps with nickel personnel. His backup, Ka’Lial Glaud, made his presence known early on in camp when he intercepted a pass intended for Demps during goal line situations.
Starting strong safety Mark Barron returns as does starting free safety Dashon Goldson. Both missed nearly the entire offseason program due to injuries so you may not see a whole lot of them this preseason, although they’ve looked strong in camp. Goldson had a nice interception on a pass intended for Vincent Jackson, while Barron’s had three picks, including one just the other day on a pass intended for Mike Evans.
Barron’s listed backup, Major Wright, has a proven track-record in Smith’s system, having played for him in Chicago, and he’s been a welcome addition to the team with the injuries, emerging as a real leader. Bradley McDougald has also looked pretty impressive and has been flying to the ball.
Goldson’s projected backup, Keith Tandy, looks to build on some of the things he showed last year in some spot starts — he can be a playmaker in some key moments, including what would have been a game-saving interception at the goal line against Seattle last year had the team not blown it in the end. He’s also been used in some safety blitzes in practice, although you probably won’t see much of that in the preseason.
Alterraun Verner has already been ruled out of the preseason opener due to a hamstring injury, while Mike Jenkins has missed practice recently due to an upper leg injury. Those are the projected starters, although Johnthan Banks, a starter from last year, is getting a lot of playing time in Jenkins’ absence. At times, he has looked the part when manning some of these big receivers, but he’s also given up some plays in a defense that relies more heavily on short area quickness versus physicality.
Another guy getting a lot more playing time due to injuries is Danny Gorrer, who is also capable of playing the nickelback role, which could be some major job security for him. Injuries impacted him last year, but he’s put together a nice camp. He’ll battle it out with Leonard Johnson for the nickelback job, with Johnson having the edge.
Others to keep an eye out for — Rashaan Melvin (although he injured his ankle and has been out, a big disappointment since he looked pretty good early on), Deveron Carr, Anthony Gaitor and Quinton Pointer.