TAMPA, Fla. -- With Super Bowl LIII just days away, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't have to look very far for ideas, particularly as they transition to a 3-4, one-gap defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles. The Los Angeles Rams made that same transition away from a 4-3 defensive scheme two years ago when Wade Phillips arrived as defensive coordinator. Phillips successfully transitioned another team -- the Denver Broncos -- from a 4-3 to a 3-4, as well.
Phillips largely has been credited for adapting his father Bum Phillips' traditional 3-4, two-gap defense into a more modern 3-4, one-gap scheme predicated on the use of quicker players and more penetration, which is closer to what the Bucs have now with their 4-3 defense. Bowles and defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers worked under Phillips in 2007 with the Dallas Cowboys, so there is familiarity already with the defensive approach.
Here's a closer look at what Phillips and the Rams have done well and how they utilize their personnel to make it happen:
Maximize interior pressure
It remains to be seen if Gerald McCoy, the Bucs' longtime three-technique lineman who is due $13 million in 2019, will remain a Buccaneer in 2019. The Rams kept Aaron Donald as a three-technique in their 3-4 system, though. Donald and McCoy are unique players with some similarities. However, though McCoy has had a very good pro career, he's not the once-in-a-generational presence that Donald has shown himself to be early in his career.
Regardless, the strength of both defenses are their interior linemen. The Rams acquired 2010 first-round pick Ndamukong Suh, and Bucs 2018 first-round draft pick Vita Vea started to flash late in the season. Phillips often brings pressure with just four or five players. Sometimes it's just straight rushes, but he also gets creative with twists and stunts, which are all designed to create confusion up front.
Create one-on-one matchups up front
Against the Seahawks in Week 10, on third-and-2 (in nickel personnel), Phillips had four down linemen with Donald lined up directly on top of the right tackle with middle linebacker (Mike) Cory Littleton behind him, Suh off the shoulder of the left guard manning the B gap, Dante Fowler Jr. lined up wide outside the left tackle and John Franklin-Myers lined up wide on the right. Donald looped behind Suh, who moved laterally, taking on the guard and center, almost completely freeing up Donald, while Littleton charged up the A gap (center). Had Donald not gotten to quarterback Russell Wilson, the disruption would have prevented him from stepping into the pocket. Linebacker Mark Barron was behind Fowler and could also have rushed the quarterback, but ultimately he covered the tight end on the play.
Even if the Bucs don't have McCoy in 2019, there's no reason they can't accomplish more one-on-one matchups with Vea -- who is perfectly capable of taking on double-teams -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Also, with the Broncos, Phillips had a fun call for a player who had Vea's rare combination of size and movement in Sylvester Williams. Phillips dropped the 313-pound Williams into coverage to keep opposing running backs from catching the ball.
Freedom for the linebackers
Based on the last play, you're probably wondering where the Bucs' linebackers fit into all this, and what Mike and Mo mean in Phillips' system. The Mike (Alexander) will often rush the passer while the Mo linebacker is responsible for roaming sideline to sideline and covering. This setup fits the skills of David and Alexander, although the more athletic David could easily rush the quarterback here as well, giving the Bucs more options.
The idea is to use these inside linebackers in ways that maximize their skills. Phillips frequently used Littleton to stop opposing running backs, although Alexander is a more aggressive player than Littleton, which works to his advantage in this system. Phillips also used this tandem to bracket Alvin Kamara in the NFC Championship Game (be mindful, though, this does leave the middle of the field vulnerable).
Right mix of man, zone and combo coverages
On paper, the Bucs don't have the cornerbacks the Rams do in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who played a lot of man coverage, and struggled at times. But in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, Phillips began using more zone coverage and credited that for a sudden surge of takeaways because players' eyes were on the quarterback (in man coverage, players' backs are often to the quarterback).
One of the things Phillips did exceptionally well in Denver was use a matchup zone, where it appears that they're playing man coverage to opponents, but it's really zone coverage until a receiver ventures into a particular area, and the coverage then changes to man. This is an example of adapting scheme to what players do best. When Peters in particular was struggling with man coverage this season, Phillips switched to zone. Having this type of flexibility can help young corners such as Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis -- who were good press corners in college -- if they struggle.