Let’s rewind the clock back a couple of years. After losing their final four games of the season to finish 5-11, the Buccaneers fired head coach Dirk Koetter. A week later, they lured Bruce Arians out of retirement to be their new head coach. Arians brought with him a long list of well-respected coaches, but it was headlined by recently-fired Jets head coach Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator.
Bowles, an accomplished defensive mind, was taking over one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They had allowed the sixth-most yards and second-most points in the league and finished dead last in defensive DVOA. They had fired their defensive coordinator earlier in the year, and the interim coordinator didn’t improve things at all. On top of trying to improve a terrible defense, Bowles was switching the team to a 3-4 base for the first time in decades.
After one year on the job, Bowles’ defense finished middle of the pack in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, and sixth in defensive DVOA. This year, they finished sixth in yards allowed, eighth in points allowed, and fifth in defensive DVOA. And they just held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to nine points for a lopsided Super Bowl victory.
The Cowboys are hoping to get a similar kind of deal in Dan Quinn, another recently-fired head coach who’s known for his prowess as a defensive coordinator. But how did Bowles and company turn the Bucs defense around so quickly? And how can that be applied to the Cowboys? The defensive gameplan that Bowles drew up for the Super Bowl is a good place to start.
First, it’s important to understand Bowles’ base defensive philosophy. Up front, he likes to send a ton of pressure at the quarterback by way of creative blitzes. In Bowles’ final year as the Jets head coach, New York’s blitz rate of 31.4% was sixth-highest in the league. Last year, his first running the Buccaneers defense, they ranked second at 43.4%. Bowles blitzed a little less this year, sending an extra rusher on 39% of dropbacks, but it was still the fifth-highest figure in the NFL.
Bowles also tends to pair his blitzing fronts with a lot of single-high safety looks, typically by way of Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells. As a former defensive back himself, Bowles features a lot of variation and coverage disguises, but at his core he likes to have a deep, center-field safety.
However, as a disciple of Bill Parcells, Bowles also understands the importance of changing things up as necessary and did so in the Super Bowl. Facing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-flying offense, Bowles knew how he’d be attacked: on the sidelines and deep down the field. In other words, the single-high scheme would get eaten alive.
So Bowles employed a ton of different split-safety looks through the Super Bowl. According to Next Gen Stats, Bowles had two safeties back deep on a whopping 87% of plays in the game. And of those 87% plays, the vast majority were basic Cover 2 and 2-man coverages:
Two most common coverages Bucs have run against Mahomes attempts:— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) February 8, 2021
Keeping those safeties deep.
Not only did Bowles change up his scheme on the back end, but he hardly blitzed at all in the Super Bowl; in fact, the Buccaneers sent an extra rusher on just 9.6% of all dropbacks. And yet, Tampa Bay recorded three sacks and 20 pressures on Mahomes, all with their front four. Now, it helps that their front four is very talented, but Bowles also did a masterful job of matching the front to the back end, as broken down by Ted Nguyen of The Athletic, to take advantage of the Chiefs’ banged-up offensive line.
And while Bowles’ defense has largely thrived on his single-high coverage schemes, the Super Bowl was a stark reminder that it can’t be the only approach. Split-safety looks offer a lot of value to a defense, even when the safeties ultimately rotate to a single-high structure after the snap. This concept was broken down by newly-hired Chargers head coach Brandon Staley in this interview from when he was the Rams defensive coordinator:
“The more match (coverage) you are, the more the coverage truly splits,” Staley said. ”When you study a lot of people who play quarters, the coverage really splits and you have these independent worlds happening. To me, that’s the easiest way for offense to create matchups. You don’t want that. We want as much overlap in your defense as possible. That’s something that’s a staple of ours.”
Some of the benefits of lining up with two-deep safeties are self-evident. With more bodies deep in the defensive backfield, the Rams are able to insulate themselves from explosive plays in the passing game. According to Next Gen Stats, Rams opponents are just 10-for-44 with five interceptions on deep passes this season (22.7 percent completions, which is the second lowest mark in the entire league). Staley’s unit has allowed just four touchdown passes of 10+ air yards (four less than any other defense) and a passer rating of just 29.2 on deep throws (first in the league). The way that Staley allocates his resources makes it difficult for any defense to push the ball down the field, but playing out of two-high looks also gives the Rams an element of unpredictability that gets lost with single-high defenses.
Even when the Rams are lined up with two high safeties, they often spin to Cover 3 or other single-high looks, making it difficult for quarterbacks to extract much information before the ball is snapped. Take this game-sealing interception from the Rams’ win over the Bucs earlier this year. The Rams are initially lined up in a look that might lead Tom Brady to believe he’d get some sort of two-high coverage. But at the snap, safety John Johnson III spins into the box and rookie Jordan Fuller rotates to the deep middle of the field. Based on his initial read on the alignment, Brady tries to fit a ball to Chris Godwin up the seam — and throws it right to Fuller to end the game. “What it forces the quarterback to do is operate post-snap,” Staley said. “He has to work once the ball hits hands. Being in the shotgun, one thing you do lose is time, because you have to look at the snap. When you’re receiving the ball, if something happens after the ball is truly snapped, we feel like that’s an advantage.”
That’s exactly what Bowles did against the Chiefs, and it relegated the most dominant quarterback of the last three years to one of the worst performances of his career. It was all done by understanding the potential weaknesses of his own scheme and knowing when to switch things up.
Todd Bowles defense tonight —— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) February 8, 2021
Situational pressure. Schemed pass rush matchups. And a mix of split-safety coverages.
Didn’t allow Mahomes to play in-rhythm. Limited vertical throws. Consistently heated-up the pocket (with four). #Bucs #Chiefs #SBLV
So how does that impact Quinn and the Cowboys? As has been noted, Quinn doesn’t blitz very often, but he is a huge fan of single-high structures. Yet Quinn has become a fan of split-safety concepts in recent years at Atlanta. Ahead of the 2019 season, Quinn added Bob Sutton (coincidentally the former Chiefs defensive coordinator) as a senior defensive assistant to take advantage of his experience in split-safety defenses, as well as giving Raheem Morris - who cut his teeth in the Tampa 2 split-safety defense - more and more input on weekly defensive game plans.
As a result, Quinn’s Falcons defenses ended up playing Cover 3 on less than a third of all plays his final two years there, one of which featured new Cowboys defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. coordinating the secondary. That’s a stark comparison to Kris Richard, who ran Cover 3 on 54% of plays his final year in Dallas and overall single-high looks on 83% of all plays.
While Quinn’s recent history and the addition of Whitt likely means a continued integration of split-safety looks into the single-high structure Quinn operates out of, the job that Bowles did in the Super Bowl - itself a finishing touch on a masterful two-year-long body of work - should serve as a valuable lesson in how to truly field a championship-caliber defense.