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By John McMullen, NFL Editor - Archive - Email
Smith's DNA is the problem for Bucs
Lovie Smith When the stakes are highest, Lovie Smith will fall back into what's cozy for him
and that happens to be a defensive concept which belongs in the Smithsonian.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The late Steve Jobs believed that innovation was a rather stark line of demarcation between a leader and a follower.

And if that's the case, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in deep trouble with Lovie Smith, certainly not a surprise to anyone watching the Bucs stumble to 0-3 in what can only be described as an embarrassing performance in Atlanta on Thursday night.

Tampa Bay was behind 56-0 until two late garbage scores drew them within five TDs of its NFC South rival.

"I'm embarrassed by our play," the stoic Smith said after the bloodletting. "We failed in all phases."

The biggest failure came from the top, however.

The lines between a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 have been eroding for years, all but erased in favor of multiple, almost amoeba-like fronts designed to create confusion when it comes to identifying pass rushers.

In fact, the old labels are almost meaningless today because the majority of NFL defenses are wildly multiple, transforming formations from week-to-week and season-to-season or in the case of a true innovator who trusts his players like Bill Belichick, from snap-to-snap.

So when people take aim at Smith or any other Tampa-2 acolyte, it's a bit disingenuous because most of them are also running multiple concepts during a game as well.

That said, the real problem is the default setting or in the case of Smith, what he calls his DNA.

The first-year Bucs coach feels most comfortable with what he knows best and that is the cover-2 shell he learned from Tony Dungy, meaning when the bullets are flying and the stakes are highest, Smith will fall back into what's cozy for him and that happens to be a defensive concept which belongs in the Smithsonian, not a 2014 NFL meeting room.

"For me, that's in my DNA," Smith said when taking about his core philosophy. "It's not a negative to have a good defense. I think you just look to the Super Bowl champion (Seattle Seahawks). They have a team dominated with great defense."

Comparing Smith's DNA to Pete Carroll's default settings is a little far- fetched, though. Seattle's mentor does play a lot of cover-3 but he has the most talented defensive backfield in football and still complements it with an aggressive-minded front with a rotational mindset that hits the opposition like a tidal wave.

Smith's goal, on the other hand, is to react, not force the issue. Keep, everything in front, rally up and tackle.

The roots of Smith's DNA is of course the Dungy "Tampa-2," actually a misnomer because the defense was created by the former Bucs and Colts head coach in Minneapolis as a way to mask deficiencies under Dennis Green in the early 1990s.

Dungy inherited a great pass-rushing defensive line with the Vikings which included Hall of Famers Chris Doleman and John Randle, along with stud nose tackle Henry Thomas, but little in the secondary. So, much like a basketball coach with an excellent shot-blocker behind slow- footed perimeter players -- Dungy hid his weakness with a zone. An excellent move at the time because the NFL hadn't morphed into Arena Football-lite and still allowed things like coverage to be viable defensive strategies.

But, the thing never evolved as the NFL did and Dungy's Minnesota cover-2 in 1992 was virtually the exact same scheme Smith defaulted to time and time again last night as you saw Atlanta receivers exploiting massive holes in coverage.

When the parts are truly great, the Tampa-2 can still succeed because real talent is scheme-proof. In today's offensively-tinted world, however, no team can afford to sit in a cover-2 scheme for an entire contest, although Minnesota and Dallas were considered "Tampa-2" teams in 2013, and finished at the bottom of the NFL's defensive rankings.

Critics call the scheme antiquated because it makes things far too easy for cerebral quarterbacks. If a Peyton Manning is playing against a cover-2 team, he already understands where defenders will be lined up in June, never mind January, so he can generate what he considers a mismatch at will. Furthermore, so many other signal callers are far more accurate these days, making it like a glorified 7-on-7 drill for the truly special ones.

On Thursday the Falcons' Matt Ryan completed a mind-numbing 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns on Thursday with Julio Jones the top target, catching nine of those passes for 161 yards and two scores.

"Even as good as tonight was, I think there were areas where we can improve and get better," said Ryan.

Yeah, three of Ryan's passes actually didn't connect.

There are plenty of other issues with the cover-2 as well. It spawns selfish defensive lineman who often chuckle at alignment and assignment responsibilities and are prone to freelancing. Meanwhile, it breeds indecision while sapping the confidence out of young defensive backs used to relying on man coverage skills in college.

Perhaps the most untenable aspect of the scheme, however, is at the second level where you need a drop linebacker in the mold of Derrick Brooks or Brian Urlacher, players who aren't exactly growing on trees these days, especially as the position of linebacker as a whole becomes more and more devalued at the developmental levels.

"One of the reasons why there is not any panic around here is based on that and what I've seen from our men here." Smith said. "They buy in. They believe. They show up every day with their lunch pail. And they just want to know how and why, which is good. I like when players want to know why we do things a certain way."

You can bet Smith will be getting plenty of questions this week with the theme being 'why?' as in 'why are we song this?'

"In an ideal world, you want to start off with wins right away," the coach said. "But you really do have to crawl before you walk. Behind the scenes, things are being done and eventually they'll turn into wins."

No one is doubting the Bucs will get better, they almost have to but that doesn't mean they will be getting good any time soon.

"It starts with coaching, it starts with the head football coach," Smith admitted.

Unfortunately there is no creativity or innovation going on with the head football coach in Tampa and therefore little room for real improvement.

That's the real DNA of the Bucs.

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