Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles was handed a tough task when he took over as the Bucs’ defensive coordinator this past off-season. Not only was he responsible for improving one of the worst statistical defenses in the league the past two seasons, he had to do it with a lot of youth.
On any given Sunday, Tampa Bay’s defense starts the game with five to six starting defenders that are rookies or second-year players. That comes in the form of linebacker Devin White, defensive tackle Vita Vea and defensive backs Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards.
While the defense began the year on another very poor pace from a yardage and scoring standpoint, they have shown a lot of growth over the past few months. In fact, White was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for November while Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Davis all found themselves on Pro Football Focus’ Team of the Week, one week or another, between Week 10 and Week 13.
“Their work ethic, I would say, is number one,” Bowles said about what stands out to him from this rookie class. “And the way they absorb information and get better. They take it and they study it on their own and they want to be better and they want to be great. Those are the two things I notice right now.”
While the defense has very young players all across the starting lineup, Bowles points to the veteran presence of guys like Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh to bring along their young counterparts, specifically the pair of first-round picks in Vea and White.
“I think you need the veteran leadership,” Bowles said. “Those guys aren’t just great players, they’re great leaders on and off the field. And a lot of it you don’t see off the field, but they do a heck of a job with the young guys and bringing them along.”
Bowles then spoke more about what that leadership has done for Vea.
“It’s been great because between [Suh] and Beau [Allen], the help he gets from a mental standpoint and a hand placement standpoint and understanding blocking schemes, Vita’s been great this year.”
And for further comparison, much like Vea started his rookie year with a lower body injury that forced him to miss time, a knee injury in Week 2 forced White into a four-game absence earlier in the year. Although it took some time, White’s play has improved steadily and we’re beginning to see the quickness and big-play ability that he was praised for when drafted.
“You’re not a rookie when you’re playing the whole year but mentally he has some things to learn,” Bowles said. “He plays fast and he gets better every day. As long as the mental aspect of the game comes for him, and it’s coming very fast, his ceiling… If he stays healthy, he controls his own destiny. He’s a good player, he’s a very good player, he has a chance to be a great player if he stays healthy and everything goes well.”