Matthew Postins: Bates has always been known for using beefy interior tackles to eat up space and create lanes for speedy linebackers. He's also been known for using man-to-man and press coverage in the secondary. While Bates has installed his philosophy, the Bucs are not equipped from a talent standpoint to fully execute his vision. The Bucs were a Cover 2 team for more than a decade and much of the personnel -- especially on the back row -- is built for zone coverage. The pass rush, up until last week against Green Bay, was horrible. The secondary has given up too many big plays. The linebackers have been solid, but certainly not on the level of a Derrick Brooks or a Shelton Quarles (with the exception of middle linebacker Barrett Ruud). It's going to be a couple of seasons before the Bucs are the defense Bates wants them to be.
Q: Is Ronde Barber still an effective cornerback now that he's in his 12th season?
MP: Barber was perhaps the biggest beneficiary from the Cover 2, and by contrast was the most to lose in Bates' new system. He's the very definition of the nickel corner, the corner that can effectively cover the large slot receiver. He can still do that. He's been burned several times, but that had as much to do with the anemic pass rush as the emphasis on man-to-man coverage. But he has 37 tackles, the most of any corner on the team, three tackles for loss, a sack, three pass breakups and a blocked PAT, not to mention the special teams touchdown he scored off a blocked punt last week. But he has no interceptions, and I think that's where the limits of his talent show up in man coverage. He's still a productive player, but his days of being the focal point of the Bucs secondary are clearly behind him. Now it's about not tarnishing his credentials for a potential trip to Canton. He's on the bubble.
Q: Cornerback Aqib Talib has five picks; great season or are teams constantly throwing at him, therefore he has a lot of chances to get interceptions?
MP: A little of both. Talib had a good season as a rookie last year, picking off four passes. He's already eclipsed that total through nine games. Talib played a lot of man coverage at Kansas, so when he got to Tampa last year he had to do all the adjusting. Bates' man coverage philosophy fits much better with Talib's game, which is why his interception totals are the best on the team. But teams aren't constantly throwing at the Bucs. According to NFL.com the Bucs have given up a league-low 215 passing attempts. That's probably because the run defense is so awful.
Why have the Bucs been so porous against the run?
MP: Perfect timing. Bates' scheme really doesn't do a lot of favors to the current personnel, which is a bit undersized to get the interior penetration necessary for the linebackers to make plays. Because of that, the interior guys get pushed around more than Bates and the Bucs would like, cutting off tackling lanes and allowing opposing backs to rattle off solid yardage. That should get better as Bates gets the kinds of players he likes inside. Frankly, Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims won't get it done. Hovan has high energy but doesn't have the size. Sims, frankly, is nothing more than a career backup. They're just keeping the seats warm. Until Bates gets his space eaters, the Bucs run defense will be near the bottom of the NFL. The Bucs have given up 10 plays of 20 yards or more on the ground, tied for worst in the NFL.
Q: How do the Bucs go about deciding which one of their two kickoff returners to use when Sammie Stroughter has a 97-yard touchdown and Clifton Smith has an 83-yard return?
MP: Flip a coin? Acutally, if you look at the numbers, Smith is the guy. He has 17 of the Bucs' 20 punt returns and 19 of their 27 kickoff returns for averages of 9.9 and 30.6. He's playing about the way you would expect a Pro Bowler to play. Strougher is intriguing because of his top-end speed, but he's still learning the nuances of the return game in the NFL. In many cases, Strougher's growing duties on offense take him out of the special teams mix (he has just one special teams tackle this year, while Smith has 5). Smith is rarely used on offense, thanks to the Bucs' three-headed running attack. The Bucs haven't really addressed this with the media, but I think it just has to do with creating a change of pace with the opponent, much the way the Wildcat does for the Dolphins. There's a lot of tape on Smith when you consider he's been returning kicks for two years. There's much less on Stroughter. Teams are still learning his tendencies. When the Bucs think they have a chance to exploit that, they send out Stroughter. If they don't, then they stick with the reliable Smith, who rarely makes mistakes and has good instincts.