Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter was looking for some new energy to put into his defense, so it seemed strange when he hired 65-year-old Mark Duffner to replace Mike Smith as the defensive coordinator in October.
Tampa Bay was last in passing yards (355.8) and points (34.6) allowed and next to last in total yards, giving up an average of 440 per game. So, why hire a coach who might retire soon?
“ ‘Duff’ is just a terrific football coach. I think it’s something like his 42nd year coaching, and ‘Duff’ is just a really positive guy, brings a lot of energy,” Koetter said. “I think he has done a really good job of using the staff and getting those guys involved, helping him not only during the week but on game day.”
Duffner, a former Maryland coach, has made a major difference in Tampa Bay’s defense. Don’t be fooled by the current rankings, which have the Buccaneers ranked No. 27 in both pass and total defense.
Since Duffner became the coordinator on Oct. 15, the Buccaneers have gone from nine sacks to 34. They were ranked No. 23rd in third-down efficiency but have jumped to seventh. They are allowing only 214 passing yards, 355 total yards and 26.3 points per game under Duffner.
Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has taken notice.
”Tampa’s defense — I will tell you, their overall numbers don’t look really good at all,” said Mornhinweg. “However, if you break them down, the last several games — specifically, the last, let’s say, three games — they’ve been playing lights out. They have an excellent front. They do a lot of things. They have some excellent pass rushers. They’re playing very aggressively. So, we have to do some specific things in this ball game to counteract their strengths, and then we’ll go from there.
“They made a change at the defensive coordinating spot. Certainly, since he’s taken over, Tampa has improved, absolutely.”
It’s not as if the Buccaneers have made a lot of changes. They’ve put in a dime package for the first time in recent years. They’ve done some things differently with their pass rush and are getting outstanding play from ends Carl Nassib and Jason Pierre-Paul.
The biggest difference, though, is Duffner. Guys play hard for him because he has always been a caring and personable coach. From his head coaching days at Holy Cross, where he compiled at 60-5-1 record from 1986 until 1991, to his days at Maryland, where he went 20-35 from 1992 through 1996, Duffner has a way of making players feel special.
As an assistant or head coach, he has always been known as the coach who gives the players the most hugs and handshakes.
His messages are always positive. He was and still is emotional, once crying after his first two losses at Maryland because he thought his players had worked so hard and deserved better.
When the Buccaneers have their condition run before the start of training camp, Duffner runs with the offensive linemen.
“As a coach, you are always looking for the best way to teach and how to connect with the players,” Duffner said. “I’ve always been positive, upbeat and then try to learn about the players and the best way to communicate with them.”
Duffner has been an NFL assistant for 22 years with stops in Cincinnati, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa Bay. Baltimore sports fans will remember him as the upstart coach hired by former Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger to replace Joe Krivak.
Duffner, then in his late 30s, couldn’t duplicate the success he had at Holy Cross, but the Terps did put up some impressive numbers in their Run & Shoot offense led by quarterbacks Scott Milanovich and John Kaleo.
The Terps were ahead of the curve.
“That open formation fit the style of player we had at Holy Cross and we formatted to the players we had at Maryland,” Duffner said. “These things work in cycles. In 22 years in the NFL, I’ve seen the two-back set, then we’ve gone to the one-back, the option and RPOs [run-pass options], which are more part of the college game. It’s all part of the evolution of the game.”
There hasn’t been much of a change in Tampa Bay’s scheme after Smith left. The Buccaneers are still running the same 4-3 defense which Smith implemented but with some Duffner flavor.
“When you hit it in mid-stream, there is not a lot of time to think if it’s comforting, you just go as fast as you can,” Duffner said. “You just try to make things repetitive because good execution comes from doing it over and over again.”
Koetter said: “He [Duffner] is still coaching our linebackers, so he’s coaching a position that’s right in the center of our defense. So, he’s right in the middle of everything, and he’s on the field on game day, and we’ve definitely had improvement in our defense in these last few weeks.”
The results have been good, but Duffner isn’t sure what will happen at the end of the season as far as coaching. He just knows he has a date Sunday with the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
“They’ve got two good quarterbacks. Joe Flacco is a proven veteran who has done it throughout his entire career and Lamar Jackson has speed, can run that offense and they have had success with him,” Duffner said. “They are in a good situation. “
And so is Tampa Bay with Duffner, who has helped turn around the Buccaneers defense.