Talk to any Bucs defensive coach and it’s clear: this staff loves Sean Murphy-Bunting for a plethora of reasons. The most obvious is his talent, as Murphy-Bunting offers a 6-0+ frame with nearly 32-inch arms and 4.42 speed to go with a nearly 42-inch vertical jump. As far as a physical and athletic profile goes for the cornerback position, Murphy-Bunting is the prototype.
SMB is also one of the smartest and more versatile players on the Bucs defense, consistently impressing the coaches with his ability to process information and assignments in the meeting room and communicate them to the rest of the defense. Murphy-Bunting is a vocal leader despite being in just his second season in the NFL, and his ability to play inside and outside gives the Bucs hypothetical flexibility in how they match up with opposing personnel.
Unfortunately, all the hypotheticals and potential outcomes in the world won’t change the fact that Murphy-Bunting has been the weakest link in the Bucs defense all season long, and continued to unravel on Sunday against the Falcons. Murphy-Bunting, playing every snap of the game split almost evenly between the slot and outside, was carved up by Matt Ryan, allowing seven catches on eight targets for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Off-man, press man, zone, safety help, none of it mattered. Murphy-Bunting cannot currently play at the level necessary to be on the field in the NFL.
One of the very worst things you can do as a cornerback is create space for the receiver to work into as a route-runner. This is consistently a major issue for Murphy-Bunting (top of the screen) in off coverage, as he gets into a hasty backpedal way before he needs to, making this the easiest post pattern catch that Russell Gage will have all season.
There’s just no reason for Murphy-Bunting to be getting that much depth, especially knowing he has no help in the middle of the field. The Falcons played a ton of max protect with 2-3 man route combinations, and the Bucs doubled Calvin Ridley to take away Ryan’s top option. All Murphy-Bunting has to do is eliminate the Falcons typical No. 3 receiver, but instead it’s an easy chunk play for Atlanta.
Later in the game, Murphy-Bunting created the same problem for himself.
This is a good route from Calvin Ridley to take Murphy-Bunting inside and open the corner’s hips to the middle-of-the-field, which then forces Murphy-Bunting to speed-turn to stay on top of the route. But it’s also poor technique by Murphy-Bunting, who needs to stay more square at the top of route rather than dramatically open to the middle of the field. His speed-turn isn’t tight either, as the corner can’t even get in position to come close to contesting the throw from Ryan.
So press-man is the answer, right? After all, Murphy-Bunting’s length and athletic ability suggest a cornerback with all of the traits to match up man-to-man, rather than be left to process and react in space. But the problem is, all the ability in the world doesn’t matter in the NFL if your technique is bad.
When Murphy-Bunting has been given opportunities to play in press-man, he’s consistently lost at the line of scrimmage, putting him in recovery mode early in the rep. I’m sure that cornerback coaches would have more to break down from Murphy-Bunting’s tape, but my two biggest issues are how slow he is to react and how rarely he gets his hands on an opposing receiver at the line of scrimmage.
Press in the slot is tough, as the receiver has a two-way go, and committing too early with your jam can lead to an ugly loss. But Murphy-Bunting doesn’t have to maul Ridley, just stab with the left hand, slow his progress a little bit and open with the receiver to the field. The whole thing is just too easy for the receiver. Murphy-Bunting is beaten so badly, he can’t even get in position to make the tackle after the catch.
In the slot at the bottom of the screen, Gage’s stutter-step freezes Murphy-Bunting and the cornerback fails to get a jam at the line of scrimmage as he gives up another uncontested catch on a crossing route. This is a great release and route by Gage, but some contact off the line of scrimmage and this kind of separation is less likely.
From the trail position, Murphy-Bunting also rarely seems to sense when the receiver’s route is going to break, which ends up putting him further behind by the time the ball arrives. On each of the last two plays, Murphy-Bunting is beaten off the line of scrimmage AND beaten at the top of the route. That’s a consistent flaw in his tape that only adds to the mountain of issues he’s working through in coverage right now.
It’s the same story in the red zone, as Murphy-Bunting is beaten off the line of scrimmage when he hops inside on Gage’s jab step release, and then is beaten at the top of the route for further separation. Can’t make the play early, can’t make the play late.
Well what about some press-bail? The Bucs don’t do a lot of this, but let’s drop Murphy-Bunting out into a deep third from a press position, so he’s not giving up as much space to the receiver as he is in off coverage.
That strategy may have led to Murphy-Bunting’s worst rep on Sunday. This is ridiculously bad.
The Bucs look like they’re in Cover 3 here, but in the red zone that’s essentially going to turn into man coverage for Murphy-Bunting. There isn’t another route to even process here, yet Murphy-Bunting continues to look toward the middle-of-the-field, allowing Ridley to get into his blind spot and then simply work back to the football for an easy touchdown catch. Murphy-Bunting nearly runs out of the back of the end zone in coverage! Where does he think Ridley is going? There’s no words for this one. This can’t happen in the NFL. Heck, it can’t happen in college.
There’s just no awareness with Murphy-Bunting in coverage. He’s the definition of book smart without the street smarts. In the meeting room I have no doubt that he impresses the coaching staff and his teammates, but the same intelligence does not show up on the field. Murphy-Bunting is constantly late to react and slow to process, which leads to allowing a ton of receptions, poor angles as a tackler and rarely puts him in position to make plays on the ball.
The Vikings successful 2-point conversion last week captured a lot of Murphy-Bunting’s non-technique issues in one rep. Pre-snap, the Vikings come out in a bunch set near the goal-line, which should immediately set off alarm bells that a smoke screen could be coming. The Bucs are in perfect position to defend it, with 3-over-3 to the field. Vikings can’t block everyone, so the free defender simply has to come up and make the tackle on a concept each Bucs defensive back should already be looking for immediately after the ball is snapped.
There’s just…nothing from Murphy-Bunting. It’s like he isn’t even aware the ball is snapped, that’s how slow he is to process. Then when he does come downhill, he stops his feet, failing to fully commit on the tackle attempt. Even with the late start, he still makes this play easily if he simply comes downhill aggressively. You’re on the goal line, man. Stopping your feet to make a “safer” tackle isn’t going to help you at all. Murphy-Bunting just has no situational awareness to where he is on the field, and his reaction timing to route concepts has been an issue each of his two years with the Bucs. It can’t continue, or the Bucs defense will keep leaking big plays to opposing passing attacks.
Ready for the good news? The Bucs don’t have to play Murphy-Bunting every snap of the game, and if Carlton Davis is healthy, they don’t have to play him at all. Ross Cockrell is a proven veteran with a limited ceiling, but he’s played FAR better than Murphy-Bunting this season, and Jamel Dean had an outstanding game against Atlanta in his return from injury. Cockrell’s ability to play inside or outside gives the Bucs flexibility to play him in the slot or to play him outside when Davis trails a top opposing receiver in nickel.
I know Murphy-Bunting’s development matters, but it matters a lot less than your defense getting shredded each week because he can’t play. Per Pro Football Focus, Murphy-Bunting has surrendered 57 catches on 70 targets for 739 yards and six touchdowns on the 2020 season. That’s an 81.4 completion percentage when targeting Murphy-Bunting, and an average of 13 yards per reception. There’s no upside either, as Murphy-Bunting has just one pass breakup and one interception on the season, while missing 11 tackles. Even at his best, what he gives you isn’t very valuable.
Murphy-Bunting has all the physical and athletic traits the Bucs want in a cornerback, but it’s not happening for him this season. I’m not suggesting at all that the team give up on him as a player, but he is not part of the solution in 2020. If the Bucs want to rid their struggling defense of its’ weakest link, benching Murphy-Bunting for Cockrell is the right move. There’s a large sample size of the Bucs second-year cornerback, and the vast majority of it is extremely concerning.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft