TAMPA – No team did a better job of preventing their opponents from converting third downs into first downs a year ago than the Buccaneers. Of the 195 third-down situations they were pressed into, the Bucs got off the field or forced a fourth-down play on 65.6-percent of them.
Obviously, the Bucs would like to maintain that pace through the 2017 season and beyond. That’s why they made a point of signing defensive tackle Chris Baker during free agency and traded up in the seventh round of the draft to get nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu.
The idea, as Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith revealed last week, was to add some run-stopping bulk to the Bucs D-line on first and second down, the hope being that the added bulk will thus create third-down situations that are more favorable to the Bucs.
“This is a passing league, but when people can line up and run the ball on you you’re never going to get into favorable third-down situations,’’ said Smith, who noted that it was a game late in the season (probably the Dallas game) that prompted the decision to get bigger up front.
The Bucs lost that game at Dallas 26-10 in large part because the Cowboys ran 32 times for 185 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys still only converted five of their 13 third-downs (38.4-percent), but the Bucs came away knowing they needed to get bigger in order to stop better run teams.
“We felt like we had to get bigger and have more girth up front,’’ Smith said. “And that plays into two things. That plays into us winning the line of scrimmage and also creating opportunities for us to have linebackers run free.
“If (an opponent) only (has) to put two hands on a defensive lineman it can then put two hands on your linebackers. But if you’ve got four hands on a lineman, then you’ve got an opportunity with the way our linebackers run that they’ll be able to run clean to the ball.
“That’s why we say we don’t have 11 starters on defense, we have 14 or 15 starters on defense. There are guys who are going to be starting on first-and-10 and second-and-8 that are going to be off the field on third-down-and-5.’’
At 6-foot-2, 320 pounds and 6-1, 320 pounds respectively, Baker and Tu’ikolovatu will likely alternate as two of those early-down starters. That is as long as Tu’ikolovatu can beat out 6-2, 345-pound Sealver Siliga for a roster spot.
Either way, You can tell from Smith’s explanation that there’s an ulterior motive to all of this. If the Bucs are more successful on early downs, then third downs become more manageable from a defensive perspective because they become more predictable.
And it’s when third downs become more predictable that pass rushers can let it fly and go all out in their pursuit of the quarterback. That’s when most sacks and, more importantly, most turnovers, are produced and that’s ultimately what the defense is aiming for.