Is the Cover 2 dead in Tampa Bay?
That's certainly a possibility under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates. New head coach Raheem Morris – who was to be the defensive coordinator in 2009 before the firing of Jon Gruden – has said that the defensive calls will be up to the 62-year-old career coordinator.
So then what are the Buccaneers getting in Bates? Well, in some respects, Bates has been just as successful in a 4-3 scheme as his predecessor, Monte Kiffin. His units have been ranked in the Top 10 in total defense six times in seven years. In his first four years in Miami, his unit was every bit Tampa Bay's equal, finishing within four spots of Tampa Bay in points allowed each season from 2000-2003.
But based on Bates' track record in Miami, Green Bay and Denver, there could be some serious changes in the way the Bucs attack defensively in 2009.
Let's start with what should look the same. Bates will likely employ a 4-3 base scheme, just like the Bucs have under Kiffin. Bates also shares Kiffin's penchant for using quick, undersized linebackers to chase the football. That bodes well, not just for veterans like Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud, but also for younger players like Quincy Black and Geno Hayes. Bates' philosophy should mean a smooth transition for the linebackers and their position coach, Joe Barry.
That's where the similarities end, apparently. Both Alain Poupart, publisher of Dolphindigest.com, and Bill Huber, reporter for Packerreport.com – each of whom have covered Bates in the past – say the attitude on the practice field, after years of Kiffin's soft-spoken leadership, will change under Bates.
"Bates is a fiery guy who was never afraid to get in a guy's face, and he did what can only be described as a very good job with the Dolphins," Poupart said.
Huber echoed that sentiment, saying that Bates' straight-shooting approach made him a player favorite for the Packers' head coaching position in 2006, which Mike McCarthy eventually secured.
Next, defensive tackles Jovan Haye and Chris Hovan may not fit into his plans. According to Poupart, Bates likes to use space-eating tackles inside to stuff the run. The Dolphins did that to dizzying effect in 2002-03, finshing fifth and third against the run, respectively. Those tackles, Larry Chester and Tim Bowens, each tipped the scales at 325. Haye and Hovan barely weigh 300 pounds each.
When Bates doesn't have those space-eaters, his scheme appears to suffer. Witness 2004, when both Bowens and Chester spent most of the season hurt.
"Teams were able to run at will against them," Poupart said.
The Dolphins ranked 31st against the run in 2004, the same season Bates was elevated to interim head coach with seven games to play.
His defenses haven't fared much better since. In 2005 in Green Bay the Packers were 23rd against the run. In 2007 in Denver, when Bates was the assistant head coach for defense, the Broncos were 30th against the run.
With the Packers, Bates had 345-pound Grady Jackson inside, but, as Huber said, "The team was horrible. Thompson had to gut the roster because of cap issues. (Brett) Favre's 29 interceptions didn't help." In Denver, Bates started undersized Sam Adams and rookie Marcus Thomas.
It would seem Bates' defenses work best when the tackles inside are at least 320 pounds. And he hasn't had that on a regular basis since 2003.
Against the pass, Bates' teams are terrific, even if the overall defensive talent isn't there. In six of his seven years as a coordinator, his units have ranked in the Top 10 against the pass.
And that's the biggest difference in Bates' scheme. He doesn't play Cover 2 pass coverage as a base. He uses his cornerbacks in man-to-man press coverage. In most cases, that scheme has worked.
This could present real problems for Tampa Bay's current defensive personnel, especially veteran Ronde Barber, who has built a potential Hall of Fame career out of the Cover 2, which requires little bump-and-run coverage. Barber is 34, and he was never that quick to begin with.
Phillip Buchanon, who can become a free agent, played bump-and-run in Oakland, but was never that good at it. Tanard Jackson was a cornerback in college, but embraced the Cover 2 when he moved to safety.
Second-year corner Aqib Talib may benefit the most from a change to press coverage, as he played plenty of man-to-man at Kansas and has the makeup to be successful in that scheme.
But the overall personnel in the secondary represents Bates' biggest hurdle in 2009. Should he continue to embrace press coverage – and there's no reason to expect him not to – the Bucs may need to invest in more cornerbacks in free agency and the draft that can play Bates' scheme, especially if players like Barber and Jackson cannot adjust.
This could also represent an opportunity to move Barber to the safety position, something Rod Woodson did successfully late in his career. Barber has the makeup and instincts to make a fine safety, and he plays in the slot on third down anyway. A move could extend Barber's career.
There's also one other thing to consider – points per game. Most coaches will tell you points are all that matters. And, lately, Bates' teams have suffered.
From 2000-2003, Bates' defenses in Miami gave up 14.1 ppg, 18.1 ppg, 18.8 ppg and 16.3 ppg, respectively. Starting in 2004, that number shot up – 22.1 ppg. In 2005 with Green Bay it was 21.5 ppg. In 2007 with Denver it was 25.6 ppg.
While secondary may be his biggest hurdle in transitioning the Bucs from the Cover 2 – if he chooses to do so – defensive tackle, as outlined earlier, will represent Bates' most important position. It appears the play of his run defense is directly related to his defense's points allowed.
Surely his defense's rankings against the run during that time – 31st in 2004, 23rd in 2005 and 30th in 2007 – and their soaring points allowed can't be a coincidence?