These days, people think of the Buccaneers defense as a fast, aggressive defense that blitzes the crap out of opponents while playing man coverage.
It’s a logical thought process. Those qualities have been the foundation of Todd Bowles’ defenses ever since he earned the first-ever AP Assistant Coach of the Year award back in 2014.
But when it comes to the Buccaneers defense, there’s one common misconception that surrounds the unit. And that’s the fact the defense runs a lot more zone than it does press man or off-man.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the Buccaneers defense was in zone coverage on 454 pass plays in 2021. Bowles’ unit was in man on 165 pass plays. Overall, the Bucs were in zone on 65% of pass plays and they ran man coverage 22% of the time.
Now, just because the defense ran more zone than man doesn’t mean they aren’t a man-heavy defense. You have to look at the rates from all of the other teams across the board to actually determine that.
And as it turns out, Tampa Bay’s 22% usage rate is the NFL’s sixth-lowest rate in 2021. As a matter of fact, that usage rate is just half of what the NFL-leading Denver Broncos deployed in 2021. Every team in the top-5 -the Broncos, Saints, Cowboys, Ravens, and Patriots- utilized man on at least 34% of pass plays last year.
The Buccaneers defense was zone-heavy in 2020, as well. Bowles’ called it on 66% of pass plays, which was seventh-most that year. He called man 24% of the time, which was the ninth-lowest rate in the NFL.
2019 is different, however. Bowles ran man on 37% of pass plays, which was the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. But as we all know, the Bucs secondary really struggled during the first half of the season.
Based off SIS’ numbers, Bowles recognized this after Week 10 and made the switch. He deployed man coverage at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL from Weeks 1-10. That rate dropped all the way to 16th from Weeks 11-17, which coincided with the defense’s vast improvement over the back half of the season.
There’s no reason to think the Buccaneers defense will be man-heavy in 2022, either. This is no insult to the defensive backs on the roster, but it’s clear they are more effective running zone than they are man. Just take a look at Carlton Davis III -the team’s No. 1 corner- and you’ll see all you need to know. Per Pro Football focus, quarterbacks who targeted him in man averaged an 88.9 quarterback rating compared to a 65.7 rating when targeting him in zone in 2021.
Credit Bowles for adjusting to his player’s strengths. That’s what good coaches do. And with four of the Bucs’ top-6 defensive backs set to return in 2022, there’s not much reason for him to do anything differently when it comes to the coverages he calls.
When you add in the possibility of Davis and Jordan Whitehead returning to the team, then there’s really not much reason for him to change, at all.
Featured image via-Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports