For the second straight season, the Bucs finished the year with a record of 5-11. This time, they fired their head coach Dirk Koetter, and are now searching to fill that vacancy. Here are the grades for the Bucs defense and special teams for the 2018 season.
What a difference a year makes, from defensive line coach Brentson Buckner on down. Bringing in fresh new faces entirely changed the effect that the line had for the Bucs defense, as they notched 38 sacks on the season, improving from a league worst 22 from the year prior.
Say what you will about GM Jason Licht, but he deserves credit for bringing in free agents like Vinny Curry, and Beau Allen, drafting Vita Vea, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, and claiming Carl Nassib off of the waiver wire.
It’s those last two name that had the largest impact on the line. Pierre-Paul became the first Buc player since Simeon Rice to have a double digit sack season, with 12.5. He and Nassib created a bookend on both sides of the line with their relentless motor that pressured and terrorized quarterbacks each week.
Nassib ended up with 6.5 sacks on the year, which was second highest behind Pierre-Paul. It all got going for him when he played against his former team, the Cleveland Browns, in week 7, where he had two sacks and a pass deflection.
Outside of the JPP-Nassib duo, the most important thing that could affect the Bucs for years to come was the emergence of rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea. After missing all of training camp and the first the three games of the season with a calf injury, it took awhile for Vea to get his NFL legs under him. But once he did, Vea became a violent combo of power and quickness that flourished along the line.
He ended up with three sacks and 28 tackles on the year, which is akin to the numbers that Warren Sapp and Gerald McCoy had in their first years in red and pewter, with both having three sacks and 27 tackles. There are still plenty of years to come, but Vea’s breakout towards the latter half of the year gave signs that he could be a big problem for other teams in the future.
Gerald McCoy had another serviceable year on the line, as he racked up six sacks of his own. Even at 31, McCoy still gets off the snap of the ball as fast as anyone in the game. He of course was a big factor in the mentoring of Vita Vea.
The line’s best run came in a stretch where they had 16 sacks in four games, from weeks 10-13. Had the Bucs been able to stop the run a slight bit more, they could have received the highest grade possible. No matter what way you look at it, this unit was the strongest part of the Bucs defense this season.
Best of the Bunch: Jason Pierre-Paul
Each part of the Bucs defense had injuries at their position, but it was the linebackers that suffered the biggest blow in that department when Kwon Alexander went down for the season with a torn ACL in week seven.
Even before Alexander’s injury against the Browns, the Bucs were giving up a ton of yardage, totaling an average of 440 yards during their first five games. Most of that was through the air, but, when Alexander was gone, that’s when the running game was taken advantage of.
The Bucs defense was predicated on the linebackers making the tackles for the team, so when you lose one of your leaders, that makes it tough to overcome. Now, they still had Lavonte David, who is the Bucs best linebacker in the group, however, he missed two games during weeks 11 and 12, and played many games dealing with a knee injury.
In replacement for Alexander and David were Adarius Taylor and Riley Bullough. Taylor is a valuable special teams player, while Bullough spent most of last year on the practice squad, before starting this season injured. Each player gave the kind of effort that you ask for out of a player, but it wasn’t up to Alexander’s level.
The Bucs went nine straight games of giving up 100 rushing yards or more, from weeks 7-15. They were gouged by the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Lamar Jackson, in which they allowed opponents’ rushing yards of 176 (CAR), 163 (NYG), 168 (CAR again) and 242 (BAL).
If there was a bright spot to highlight on, it would have to be Lavonte David. He had another Pro Bowl caliber year, compiling 121 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. David also won the Ed Block Courage Award, which was voted on by his teammates.
Best Of The Bunch: Lavonte David
For the beginning and middle of the year, the secondary struggled heavily. Part of it was growing pains from rookies Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart having to play big roles in replacement of the injured Vernon Hargreaves, who suffered a season ending injury in the season opener. There was also the declining play of Brent Grimes, and a slew of other injuries at the safety position, with Justin Evans missing six games and Chris Conte going on IR.
The Bucs had a stretch of seven straight games without a defensive turnover, while allowing 259 passing yards a game. They had to rely on third and fourth string players, and it led to plenty of big plays that were given up. Their average of 380.3 yards allowed per game on the entire season was sixth worst in the league.
Things started to change in the latter half of the year, thanks in part to Andrew Adams stepping up. Adams had a three interception game against the Panthers in Week 13, which gave the Bucs a four interception afternoon, including a Javien Elliott’s pick. Once the interception drought ended a week prior against the 49ers, the turnovers kept coming.
The secondary play wasn’t great, but it was better, especially Carlton Davis. There’s still a long way to go for the defensive backs to be in the shape that people expect them to be, but this was a learning year for many players, and that will only help them moving into next season. Their improvement in the second half of the year doesn’t forgive the mistakes and poor play that went on by them in the first, but there’s optimism that this unit can get better.
Best Of The Bunch: Andrew Adams
The Bucs kicker curse reared its ugly head again early on in this season. Chandler Catanzaro was inconsistent on extra points, going 23 of 27 in that category, many times taking some air out of the Bucs tires after starting the game off with a touchdown, only to be up 6-0 instead of 7-0.
Catanzaro wasn’t much better at kicking field goals, as he went 11 of 15 while missing kicks from 35 yards out, two from 40 plus, and one from 50 and further. It was Catanzaro’s game winning 59-yard field goal in overtime against the Browns that saved his job, but he faltered just three weeks later at home by missing two field goals, which ultimately led to his dismissal.
In came Cairo Santos, who completely turned around the Bucs kicking game. During his time with the Bucs over the last seven weeks, Santos connected on all 17 of his extra points. He’s made nine of 12 field goals, with his misses coming in the 40-plus and 50-plus yard ranges.
Santos has eased the nerves of Bucs fans who think who have to brace themselves and close their eyes every time they line up for a kick. It’ still too early to declare that the kicking curse is broken, but Santos’ performances leaves some optimism.
Punter Bryan Anger had a career low 57 punting attempts. He also had his second worst yards per punt average with 45, but that put him in the middle of the pack for the NFL’s league average. He kicked 15 of those punts inside the 20, and had a long of 64.
That pretty much sums up Anger’s season, an average one, nothing great, nothing egregious. He did get to attempt his second career pass against Carolina, it was incomplete to Alan Cross. While Anger’s season was okay, he’s the fourth highest paid punter in the league, so there was a little more to be desired of him in terms of changing the pace up in the game by flipping the field on a kick.
Best of the Bunch:Cairo Santos