An improved Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense makes them NFC favorites

Arlington, Texas, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David (54) and cornerback Jamel Dean (35) tackle Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz (86) during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense handled the Dallas Cowboys' offense with relative ease on Sunday Night Football thanks to an evolved scheme from new head coach Todd Bowles.

• The Bucs played more two-high shells against Dallas to great effect. They did so on 56.4% of snaps after recording a 38.8% rate in 2021.

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If you followed PFF’s preseason unit rankings, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ defensive dominance of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football should come as little surprise. The fifth-ranked defensive line, seventh-ranked linebacker corps and second-ranked secondary all lived up to that billing in Week 1.

What makes the unit so scary is not just the talent at every single level, but also the puppet master pulling the strings. Head coach Todd Bowles has always been one of the most aggressive defensive minds in the NFL, and now his defense is evolving.

The wave of two-high shells has made its way to Tampa, and the rest of the league should be afraid. The team that’s led the league in expected points added (EPA) per play allowed versus the run since Bowles took over as defensive coordinator in 2019 is now starting to beg opponents to run the ball on them.

The theory behind the rise in two-deep coverages is simple: One fewer defender in the run game is less likely to result in a big play than one fewer defender in the passing game. So, placing a safety 12 yards off the line at the snap instead of six yards may mean he’s involved in fewer plays, but the ones he is involved in (or he’s preventing) now are higher leverage.

Below, you can see a breakdown of the Bucs' coverage deployment in Week 1 compared to 2021:

Coverages 2021 Week 1, 2022
0 4.1% 1.5%
1 16.3% 13.0%
2 23.1% 24.6%
3 35.0% 24.6%
4/6 15.7% 31.8%

Cover 2, Cover 4 and Cover 6 all fall into the bucket of two-deep or two-high coverages. That means two safeties are support players versus the run as opposed to having gap assignments (there are exceptions, but this is generally the case).

And as you can see, the Bucs' game plan for Dallas didn’t revolve around stopping the run. Tampa Bay had a 56.4% rate of split-field coverages after only 38.8% last season. And before you say they could play all those two-high coverages because they knew the Cowboys were going to pass: the Bucs' split-field rate across the first three quarters was actually higher at 61.1% (Cover 2 on the interception below).

While teams around the league are deploying this strategy to varying degrees of success, the Bucs have the luxury of a defensive line and linebacker duo that can stifle opposing run games on their own. They allowed 18 carries for 71 yards and -.027 EPA per rush. That’s a far cry from the -.226 EPA per rush figure that the Tampa Bay defense has allowed over the past three regular seasons, but look at what it did for their pass defense:

Comp 21
Att 39
Yards 1.95
TD 0.00
INT 0.01
Passer Rating 57.4
EPA/Pass -0.433

The Bucs held the league’s top-scoring offense a season ago to a grand total of three points. Of Dallas’ 69 offensive snaps, none gained more than 22 yards and only three gained more than 15 yards. Limiting big plays like that is a hallmark of two-high defenses. And it was arguably the biggest issue facing the Bucs last season. Despite having one of the best defenses in the NFL, they still gave up the 11th-most explosive plays (gains of 15-plus yards) of any defense in the league (129). Heck, the Jacksonville Jaguars gave up fewer big plays last year (115). If that’s changing for Tampa Bay in 2022, the rest of the NFC is in trouble. 


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