Kiffin's defensive schemes exposed Raiders
Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com, published 27 January 2003|
One by one, wearing baseball caps and soaked T-shirts that proclaimed their first NFL championship, Tampa Bay defenders walked up to defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and warmly embraced the man most responsible for a long-overdue title.
The man most responsible, you likely are asking incredulously, as if we have forgotten rubber-faced head coach Jon Gruden? Yes, we reply, the man most responsible. If you want to debate the point, well, phone Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, and try getting in his face. We dare you.
"You've got to love playing for the guy," said Rice, who recorded two sacks that will show up on the official stat sheet and another, on a failed two-point conversion try he personally snuffed out, that will be overlooked. "He takes every player, figures out what his strengths are, and designs something to (accentuate) them. The guy is flat-out brilliant."
By the time the bare-bellied Gwen Stefani appeared as the second act on the halftime show and began snaking around the stage, Kiffin had left, uh, No Doubt regarding his genius when it comes to concocting enough exotic X's to counter even the greatest of O's. The final score Sunday night, a 48-21 trouncing of the Oakland Raiders and the league's No. 1-rated offense, doesn't even do justice to the game plan Kiffin conjured up during the week. He had holed up in a film room all week long, surrounded by more videocassettes than Roger Ebert has ever seen and a high stack of computer printouts, and did a better job of camouflaging his whereabouts than even two guys named Saddam and Osama.
The end result of Kiffin's reclusive and minutely-detailed preparation for the Super Bowl, though, was certainly worth the long hours of solitude. Just as he had done last week, in the NFC championship victory at Philadelphia, the mastermind of the Tampa Bay masticating defense called a superb game. Tampa Bay had five sacks, five interceptions, and returned three thefts for touchdowns. Their defense scored as many points as did the Oakland offense and forced the tempo the entire game. The Raiders posted two first downs on just two of 15 series and gained more than 24 yards on only two series. By the time the Raiders scored on consecutive series, sequences when they gained 160 of their 269 yards, the outcome had long been decided.
Yeah, the Tampa Bay offense rang up 24 first downs and 365 yards, and got a stunningly effective 124-yard rushing performance from tailback Michael Pittman, one of the team's most disappointing players during the season. But it was, as it always seems to be for the Bucs, the Kiffin defense which set the tone for the total humiliation of the prideful but pitiful Raiders.
Some props here to Gruden who, several Tampa Bay players revealed, ran the "scout team" offense in the Thursday practice. He showed his players many of the Oakland tendencies he felt still existed, mimicked some of the things he felt quarterback Rich "I've Got No Cannon" Gannon would do in the pocket, and also passed on some audible calls and automatic checkdowns which obviously are still a part of the Raiders playbook. Still, the Tampa Bay defensive game plan was a vintage Kiffin production. "Well, we weren't 100 percent, you know. We did have a few breakdowns, to be honest," said Kiffin, ever the perfectionist.
Contrast that, though, to an Oakland offense that had a meltdown, and you'll take the Bucs performance any time. Through three quarters, the allegedly explosive Raiders eked out an anemic six first downs and 154 yards. Oakland added five first downs and 115 yards during a fourth quarter rally when Kiffin played a little soft in the secondary, but it mattered little. When things really counted, Gannon was relegated to looking like the journeyman he has been for much of his career. In one stretch between the first and second quarters, the Raiders went three-and-out on five straight possessions, and Gannon appeared totally addled by the Tampa Bay "over" scheme.
Chalk up that stretch of futility, during which Oakland averaged five yards per series, to Kiffin and some new wrinkles. The Bucs early in the season signed Kiffin to a two-year contract extension worth just shy of $2 million. But even though he has been victimized by the kind of age discrimination so prevalent in the league now, it will not be surprising if San Francisco officials seek now to interview Kiffin, 62, for their head coach vacancy.
|Dissecting Kiffin's plan |
How one NFC pro personnel director viewed the Monte Kiffin game plan:
"The way he used (cornerback) Ronde Barber, once again, was terrific. He had him in the slot, but you knew he would, because Oakland plays so much of the game with three wide receivers. But there were times when he moved him down, almost like a weakside linebacker, and that helped force the run.
Not that the Raiders tried to run it very much. Barber didn't have any of the interceptions, but he helped create them, and that was key. He's become a hell of a player and, not to take anything away from Ronde, but a big part of the reason for his improvement is how Monte moves him around."
"Tampa did show as many 'over' looks upfront as it usually does. But it didn't matter, because they were so much quicker than all those fat (guys) on the Oakland line. And they set the Oakland linemen up to get beat by doing just the opposite of what everyone though they would.
Like on the very first (Raiders) possession, it's third-and-seven, and you know (left tackle) Barry Sims figures Simeon Rice is coming straight up the field.
So what does Rice do? He takes an inside move, a tremendous move, and he beats Sims so bad it was almost laughable. A great change of pace right out of the box. You beat a guy that bad and it sticks with him. It scars him. I'm sure that Sims was thinking, like, 'Oh, man, this is going to be a long night.' And it was."
"You want to talk about disguising coverages! My, gosh, what a job. I mean, the Bucs really are starting to lose that identity as a team that only played that safe 'cover two' stuff. You name it, Monte did it, and he made (Oakland quarterback Rich) Gannon look like a rookie. He played 'press' and 'cover three' and, as usual, he got his linebackers involved.
When you have linebackers like (Derrick) Brooks and (Shelton) Quarles, who really doesn't get as much credit as he should, you can be pretty creative. Both those guys can turn and run deep."
No one could blame them after witnessing Sunday's game, particularly early on, when Tampa Bay suffocated the Raiders for those five straight three-and-out series. The string began when unheralded left defensive end Greg Spires roared up the field, cornered deftly to Gannon, and sacked him for a 5-yard loss. It concluded with free safety Dexter Jackson's second interception of the first half, a pickoff that clearly was the product of Kiffin's crafty doodling.
On the play, Kiffin called for a "corner fire" blitz, an undeniable staple of the Bucs' scheme. But the coverage behind the blitz was so well disguised that Gannon felt he had a rare "cover one" situation and threw deep up the right seam for Jerry Porter. Unfortunately for Gannon, who struggled most of the night to decipher the ever-changing secondary rotations, Tampa Bay was actually in a "cover three" and Jackson made an easy interception. "It's stuff like that," said Bucs strong safety John Lynch, "that Monte is so good coming up with week in and week out. He preached every day to us about having to disrupt (Gannon's) timing. Then he gave us a bunch of ways to do it."
Many of those ways revolved around Jackson, one of the unsung players in a defense peopled by All-Pro performers, but a guy with more range and speed than most opponents expect. In fact, it is Jackson's emergence this year as a playmaker that allowed some of Lynch's slippage to go largely unnoticed.
The stifling of the Raiders revalidated the age-old adage that it is defense that wins championships. Since 1970, there have now been seven top-rated defenses in the Super Bowl during non-strike years, and the team that owned that defense has won every time. The team with the higher-rated defense in the Super Bowl has now won 14 of the last 21 championship games. But in the microcosm of Super Bowl XXXVII, it is Kiffin who superceded all else, taking full advantage of his team's huge advantage in quickness.
"Speed kills, right, isn't that the old saying?" said "nickel" corner Dwight Smith, who had two of the Bucs' five interceptions of Gannon, and who returned both his thefts for touchdowns. "I'll leave it to you guys to decide if this is one of the greatest defenses of all-time. But I know that it is one of the fastest defenses ever. And that (Kiffin) loves to use that speed to put the fear of God into the other guys."
It took a defense with the kind of speed the Bucs possess to expose Oakland. Beyond third-year pro Jerry Porter, the Raiders have no vertical threat, and their band of 330-pound offensive linemen were made to look like turnstiles by the quicker Bucs linemen. Said Raiders tailback Charlie Garner, limited to 61 yards on 14 touches, including a paltry 10 rushing yards: "It's simple. They 'out-quicked' us in everything we did."
Because he knew Raiders wideouts Jerry Rice and Tim Brown can't run or get off tight coverage, Kiffin called more "press" combinations than usual, just as he had at Philadelphia last week. Brown caught one pass for nine yards, and had one huge drop, in the first half. Rice ended up with five grabs for 77 yards but didn't even sniff a ball until late in the third quarter. Nor could Oakland run the ball, finishing with just 11 carries for 19 yards.
But the common denominator in everything Tampa Bay did Sunday night was speed. They are a one-gap team, a defense that will take chances on a few players no one else wants, an organization whose computer printout for what it wants in a player is different than those of any other NFL club. "We rush the passer," Gruden said. "We re-route (pass) routes. We blitz. We disguise our coverages. And it all comes down to speed."
Well, speed, and Kiffin -- and terrific preparation. Two veteran defenders told ESPN.com that they had Oakland so "typed" that they knew exactly what calls were coming. And the Raiders played into the Bucs' hands as well. In the six quarters preceding Super Bowl XXXVII, the Raiders ran either three- or four-wide receiver formations on 85 of their 91 snaps. For all the improvement coordinator Marc Trestman made in the Oakland offense, there is an air of predictability, since the Raiders do not use much motion or variable motion.
Players in the Tampa Bay locker room also noted that they had little respect for Gannon's arm strength, knowing they could sit back and make a break on any ball over 15-20 yards. "We baited him a couple times," said Jackson, selected as the game's most valuable player. "We got him good."
Mostly because they had Monte Kiffin to help get him.