On Sunday, the 68-year-old Kiffin will pull the strings as the Buccaneers' defense goes after first-year starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers when the Green Bay Packers visit Tampa Bay in a battle of 2-1 teams.
The Buccaneers have won five of the last eight matchups, including five of six at Tampa. While many of the names have changed — gone are stalwarts like Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch — Kiffin has kept the Bucs' defense among the league's best. Big-play cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Derrick Brooks are still there, and young defensive ends Gaines Adams and Greg White have a combined six sacks.
While Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Kiffin's added some "challenging" wrinkles, the basics to Kiffin's Tampa-2 scheme remain the same — rush the passer, prevent big plays and create turnovers with an undersized but athletic group of defensive linemen and linebackers — according to 14-year veteran Brooks.
"The belief from the players that what we're doing will work, so everybody buys in, and secondly, execution," Brooks said when asked about the secret to the Bucs' success during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field on Wednesday. "I think by us putting an emphasis on knowing what you do, how you do it, that means you've got to go out there and execute, because other people know what we're doing and how we do it, because we don't really change our defense that much."
Kiffin became the Bucs' defensive coordinator in 1996, and from 1996 to 1998, Favre threw 12 touchdowns and two interceptions against Tampa Bay's defense en route to winning five of six games. But as the Buccaneers became an elite team, they turned the tables on Favre. In the next nine games, Favre threw nine touchdown passes and was intercepted 17 times en route to going 4-5. During that stretch, the Packers scored more than 21 points just once and were held to 17 or fewer on six occasions.
So, that's part of the challenge facing Rodgers on Sunday. Plus, the Buccaneers have eight sacks in three games while Rodgers was sacked five times by Dallas. Throw in that Tampa Bay has scored two defensive touchdowns in the three games, and the challenge appears downright daunting for Rodgers.
The key to Sunday's game is simple, Brooks said. The Buccaneers must stop the run, prevent explosive plays and not allow Rodgers to extend plays with his scrambling ability. Rodgers, with no interceptions in 99 attempts this season — including superb performances against Tampa-2 teams Minnesota and Detroit — must avoid the interception problems that plagued Favre against Kiffin and Co.
"A lot of respect for the big plays and explosive plays that Green Bay has put up last year and the first part of this year," Brooks said. "A lot of explosive plays, and Aaron's doing a good job of protecting the football, obviously. Not throwing any picks will always give you a chance to win. Aaron's doing a good job of keeping plays alive. When he feels heat, his athletic ability allows him to extend the plays three, four seconds longer to allow his receivers to get open if they're not open at first."
While Rodgers isn't a rookie, he is a rookie in terms of starting experience. It's interesting to note what the Bucs did to Falcons first-round pick Matt Ryan in Week 2: 13-of-33 passing for 158 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks and a passer rating of 29.6. Since 1996, the Bucs have yielded a paltry passer rating of 57.9, with eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions, against rookie quarterbacks.
Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, however, said Rodgers is playing like a poised veteran rather than a neophyte. Gruden, who was an assistant coach during Favre's first three seasons in Green Bay, is impressed with what he's seen from Rodgers, who he got to know during the weeks leading to the 2005 draft.
"It's a credit to him," Gruden said Rodgers' strong start. "He's had a great mentor, obviously, in Brett Favre and Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coaches. He's waited his turn, and this is his time. He makes all the throws. His mobility is a problem for us. It just looks like he's an NFL-experienced veteran player. He's got big-time ability. It looks like he's in a groove right now, and that bothers me."
Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org