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Buccaneers' coaching staff, depth chart reflect pass-happy NFL

Lovie Smith
(Derick E. Hingle / USA Today Sports)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith long ago altered his coaching staff to better reflect the pass-first NFL.

Unlike the Ravens, who preach versatility at all defensive positions and play safeties and cornerbacks as their slot defensive back in passing situations, Smith has a dedicated coach and position on his depth chart for nickel backs.

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"I just think [with] the nickel position now, a lot of teams use a third receiver as much as anything, and we ask the nickel position to do unique things," Smith said. "He's part linebacker, part safety [and] part corner. We've had a specific coach that's coached them the last seven years or so. Just like the tight end position, a lot of times there's one tight end [and] there's one coach. We look at the nickel position the same way."

Smith, a former defensive coach with Tampa Bay who was also the head coach in Chicago from 2004 to 2012, helped former Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy refine the coverage known as Tampa-2, best described as zone coverage beneath two deep safeties.

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In that coverage, the third cornerback would have linebacker responsibilities in both run and pass situations.

The Ravens, who travel to face the 1-4 Buccaneers on Sunday, have a different philosophy. They depend on players' ability to play multiple positions, when asked.

"Well, it's a different talent, but we don't have a special coach, or we don't have somebody that specially coaches that position," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We don't divide it up that way."

"We definitely try to make all of our guys versatile, where we can all play those positions," said rookie safety Terrance Brooks, who saw time at nickel back during the preseason. "They make sure we focus on every position because you don't really know who's going to go down, so if you're needed at nickel or safety, they feel fine about putting you in."

The Buccaneers list their nickel back on the depth chart as opposed to just having two starters listed at the cornerback, the way other teams do. That spot belongs to third-year cornerback Leonard Johnson, who has played around half the team's snaps this year and has 19 tackles in five games with a pair of passes defended and a forced fumble.

By comparison, the Ravens have rotated Asa Jackson, plus safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart, through the slot for a handful of snaps a game, with Jackson and Elam getting the bulk of the action.

Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has played on the outside for most of his career but thrived last year on the inside, said the devoted attention from nickel back coach Larry Marmie could only help Johnson.

"That means they really truly know how to play that position," Webb said. "To be only coached on that position, he's supposed to be making a lot of plays, whoever he is, if all he's got to do is focus on that. It just shows you the importance of that nickel position."

Many of the Ravens cornerbacks acknowledge the skillset is different. Nickel backs play schemes similar to linebackers in coverage and run support.

"You're basically like a linebacker at the nickel position, so you've got to make sure you know everything that the corners and the secondary knows, and some of the linebacker stuff too," Jackson said.

Webb said the mark of a true cornerback is being able to perform on the inside and outside.

"A lot of guys can't play outside, cover-1, cover-2 outside, cover-3, quarters, then come inside and play cover-1, cover-2, cover-3, quarters," Webb said. "It's different. Everybody's always talking about they're the best in the league, but they don't come inside and play vertical hooks. They don't come inside and have to fill a run gap. They don't play seam flat. It's a lot of things that they can't do."

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Several players expect attention on third cornerbacks will grow in the pass-happy NFL.

"There's always stuff moving up from the college to the pros, and there are so many teams in college that are four-, five-wide on first or second down," Jackson said. "It's probably in the near future, and I think that's good for a guy like me trying to make a living covering receivers."

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