Entering the 2020 NFL season, most were concerned with how the Bucs offense would come together given how little offseason work they had as a group before Week 1. But while Tampa Bay’s offense has certainly hit a few bumps in the road to begin the season, those can mostly be traced back to two major areas of self-inflicted concern – penalties and dropped passes.

Couple that with their league-leading 13 drops per Pro Football Focus (I have them with more than 13), and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what ails the Bucs on offense. To be leading the league in drops and to have committed 14 drive-killing penalties and STILL be ninth in the NFL in scoring is a clear-cut sign of a team that simply needs to get out of their own way to be able to dominate.

Bucs LBs Lavonte David and Devin White and DC Todd Bowles

Bucs LBs Lavonte David and Devin White and DC Todd Bowles – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Defensively, the Bucs issues are more complex, less self-inflicted and perhaps more cause for some level of long-term concern. Yes, the Tampa Bay has committed the seventh-most defensive penalties in football through five weeks, and has surrendered the second-most yards to opposing offenses as a result, but there are some concerns with this defense that run beyond those mistakes.

Let me be clear, I think the Bucs are clearly a good defense, and have been all-time elite against the run this season (that could admittedly change with Vita Vea out). But is Tampa Bay a great defense? Can the Bucs be a great defense, especially against the pass, which is currently ranked 16th in the league, allowing 239.8 yards per game?

I’m not sure, but they can definitely make some adjustments to improve after the first five weeks of the season. Here are the three biggest issues preventing this secondary from playing their best football.

1. Jordan Whitehead

Let’s start with Jordan Whitehead. Excellent player vs the run, a very good blitzer, a strong tackler, hard-working, tough, tone-setter, leader, etc. In coverage, zone or man, he can be a liability. I wish that wasn’t the case, because Whitehead has the physical and mental makeup of a player that every team wants on the field. But we have a large sample size of him struggling mightily to make plays in coverage.

After recovering briefly in Weeks 2 and 3 from a poor opener against the Saints, the last two weeks have been rough for Whitehead. He can’t cover in deep zone and he’s slow to close on anything underneath in front of him, which means a lot of surrendered catches and very few plays on the ball. Occasionally it means getting torched for a big play, too.

Whitehead has his eyes in the backfield here, failing to identify the depth of the crossing route as the receiver angles his way. Whitehead never gets enough depth off of the snap (check his depth compared to Antoine Winfield’s), which allows the receiver to race right past him as he splits the safeties. By the time Whitehead has started to get depth, the receiver is a couple yards past him and gaining ground fast. Even an imperfect throw would beat Whitehead easily on this play, and this Justin Herbert throw was right on the money.

There goes Whitehead, again looking in the backfield and not looking at his assignment in coverage. If he had, he would have seen a receiver releasing on a vertical wheel down the sideline, and would never have stopped his feet in the backfield. No safety should get torched on this play, yet here we are.

Unfortunately, even when his eyes are right, the results aren’t great.

Whitehead identifies the receiver’s break and closes quickly on the slant pattern, but because he gave so much ground so quickly off the snap, he can’t arrive in time to contest the catch. That’s a big problem of Whitehead’s when he is in man coverage – he doesn’t trust himself to play flat-footed and drive on the ball without giving some more cushion in case of a vertical route.

But this is a tight end! You have to be able to trust yourself to turn and run with a tight end if he stems vertically. Whitehead did the same thing last year in off-man coverage.

What’s the solution for Whitehead’s struggles in coverage? I honestly don’t know. He’s a really strong player in the box and as a blitzer, which would be great if he were a linebacker. But he’s not. And at some point, the Bucs might need to consider playing the superior coverage option in Mike Edwards, at least in certain situations.

2. Sean Murphy-Bunting

As for Sean Murphy-Bunting, he’s been much better than Whitehead in coverage, but still undone by his fatal flaw: he has a heck of a time trying to find the football vertically. It happened in Week 2 when Murphy-Bunting surrendered a back-shoulder catch to Carolina’s D.J. Moore down the right sideline, and it happened again in Week 4 when he couldn’t get his head around to contest a 19-yard touchdown pass to Chicago’s Donald Parham, Jr.

This has been Murphy-Bunting’s biggest flaw for awhile now – struggling to find the ball on vertical routes. It’s not as big of a deal in the slot, where you see less deep shots, but on the outside SMB may have an issue that gets exposed consistently against the imposing ball skills of most perimeter NFL receivers.

Enter Jamel Dean.

Quietly, Dean has had a really nice start to the season, even after surrendering a Week 5 first half touchdown to Jimmy Graham. I’m a big believer in analyzing the process over the results, and I think Dean played the fade route to Graham very well. The tight end simply made one heck of a catch.

Dean gets his head around, tracks the ball coming in, and attempts to make a play without committing pass interference. He barely misses the ball, and Graham makes a one-armed catch while holding Dean off slightly with his other arm. Nine times out of 10, this is probably an incomplete pass.

Later in the game, Dean continued to show the ball skills that have set him apart since he stepped on the field as a rookie.

No panic from Dean, as he plays this nine route perfectly and gets up to attack the football. He’s the Bucs best corner from off coverage, with the ball skills and length to contest windows down the field, and the quickness to close on the ball underneath as well.

Playing in off-man or zone coverage really isn’t a big strength of Carlton Davis or Murphy-Bunting, but Dean’s diverse skill set allows him to play at a high level on the outside regardless of alignment. In fact, he’s barely been asked to press all season despite having the strength and length to do so well. More on this in a moment.

Giving Dean more snaps isn’t really even an indictment of Murphy-Bunting as much as it is a recognition that one of the Bucs best defensive playmakers isn’t seeing the field enough. Last season, Dean intercepted two passes and broke up 17, tied for fourth-most in the NFL despite playing a fraction of the snaps compared to the players around him on the list. This year Dean already has five pass breakups, including four over the Bears’ final two drives, and nearly ended Thursday night’s game with a pick-six.

Secondary play in the NFL today is about preventing splash plays and creating splash plays. Through five weeks and throughout most of last season, Dean was better at that than Murphy-Bunting, while still being a strong run defender and excellent tackler. The Bucs might be a better defense by shifting Murphy-Bunting full-time to the slot and positioning Dean as the regular outside starter across from Davis.

3. Coverage Alignments

I’m not going to belabor this point too much, as it’s already been discussed thoroughly since Thursday night’s loss to the Chicago Bears. The Bucs are playing too much soft coverage this season, and it’s allowing average-to-bad quarterbacks to stay in games against them.

It was an issue against Teddy Bridgewater, it was an issue on a drive right before halftime against Jeff Driskel, and it was an issue against Herbert at times, and it was a massive issue on Thursday night against the Chicago Bears, especially in the second quarter. With Nick Foles struggling out of the gate, especially down the field, the Bucs allowed him to get comfortable on easy, quick-release underneath throws that were entirely uncontested all game long.

Why did the Bucs play so little tight man coverage on a night where they could have dominated with it? It’s a great question, and one I hope Todd Bowles has to answer at some point this week. Davis was especially exposed by the strategy, struggling in zone coverage while playing lock down when he was asked to compete in press man.

But ask Davis to play in zone, and the difference, as it has been most of his career, is noticeable.

Davis chases the post from No. 1 out of his zone, allowing Allen Robinson to work behind him for a 24-yard gain. Developing better discipline is part of the struggle for Davis, but he’s also just more comfortable working in close contact with an opponent rather than in space. That was obvious on this Darnell Mooney post-corner route that should have been a touchdown for Chicago.

Davis just isn’t hip-flip and run corner from off coverage, and he’s also not a click-and-close on the ball underneath corner either. He has a very specific set of skills that are best utilized in press man, where he has been excellent all season.

Obviously every corner in today’s NFL has to play some of the time in man and in zone to mix things up, but given the Bucs personnel they should be limiting the amount of reps they play zone coverage. This is a physical cornerback room with the intensity, technique and play demeanor to match-up with opponents one-on-one far more often than they are being given opportunities to do so. The Bucs were a man coverage heavy team last year, and they need to return to that in 2020 if they want to get the most out of their cornerbacks, especially Davis.

Can It Be Fixed?

Yes and no. I don’t expect Whitehead to come out of the lineup just yet, and I’m uncertain how much of an upgrade Edwards would be anyway. The coaches believe that Whitehead is superior to Edwards right now, and obviously they are the ones at practice and in the meeting rooms making those evaluations – not the media. The Bucs may just have to weather that weakness, as all teams must do somewhere in their lineup.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dean playing more, but the team is in nickel so often anyway that he’s already on the field a good bit. As for Murphy-Bunting’s ability to find and make plays on the football, I’m not sure that’s going to improve this season. We’ll see. Hopefully good coverage discourages enough throws his way that SMB’s struggles at the catch point aren’t consistently exposed.

But what Bowles can control is playing more press man, putting Davis in position to succeed more often against the No. 1 receivers he’s facing each week. If Bowles can make that adjustment and stop dropping his outside linebackers into coverage so often, Tampa Bay’s pass defense should be good enough to win plenty of football games when the offense stops beating itself.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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
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Buc stops here
8 months ago

This defense in the end lives and dies by how much pressure they put on the QB. When they successfully put adequate pressure on the QB, the secondary is good enough to stop whatever comes out. When they don’t blitz and all and play prevent, that is when it unravels and the weaknesses described above come out and destroy it. Fortunately or unfortunately, the front four and the linebackers who blitz are the strength of the defense and the secondary is adequate – nothing more or less.

8 months ago

Good analysis Jon. Here’s the problem: we have had 13 first or second round draft picks in the last 5 drafts and our GM elected to use almost HALF (6) of those picks on the secondary. That’s half of all of our 1st and 2nd rounders. Given that the probability of success (defined as a player with meaningful snaps in the NFL) goes down exponentially by round over the history of all drafts, the first and second round are BY FAR our best opportunity to add successful players to the roster each year. Licht elected to use HALF of all… Read more »

Reply to  EastEndBoy
7 months ago

A question I’ve asked myself many times. Atlanta just let a GM go that went to the Super Bowl yet we sit here dancing around the most obvious issue on our team. We’ve changed coaches, schemes, types of players targeted, hydration levels, added football science guys lol and still this is what we have. You can dress up $hit however you want its still $hit. We drafted a TE in the 1st round for an offense that barely features the position lol. Paid Gronk 10M after seeing the position barely used but still see articles asking for him to be… Read more »

8 months ago

Nice insight here with regards to Tampa Bay’s pass defense. One question I would have is if/when Justin Evans is able to come off the PUP list and play (and that’s a BIG IF), will the Bucs put him in the starting lineup at safety opposite Antoine Winfield, Jr.? Would you see him as an upgrade over Whitehead and Edwards? Athletically I would say yes, but as a football player, not so sure.

Reply to  Jon Ledyard
7 months ago

I honestly don’t know why the Bucs continue to have Evans on their roster. It’s basically been two years of being unable to play because of foot injuries. And when he has been on the field, to me he has always looked more like an athlete than a football player. Time to move on and use the roster spot on someone who can play football and play it well.

8 months ago

Good analysis Jon. I’ve also noticed that the Bucs haven’t been playing press man that much and it’s infuriating. I seriously question how good of a job Kevin Ross is doing. Although Ross can’t make guys more talented, he can help them understand how to play to their strengths and avoid exposing their weaknesses. I’m willing to bet the Bucs don’t practice press man all that often, because if they did, SMB and Davis shouldn’t be struggling so much when they get to practice against talents like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. New England is probably the best example for… Read more »

8 months ago

I was hoping Dean would take over opposite Davis. I really hope they do it. Let him stay in there permanently and get in a rhythm and let SMB have nothing else to worry about than the slot. Continuity would go a long way with the young guys. Winfield is so good and physical at the line I really think Edwards should get a shot in coverage because it seems like it can’t get worse over Whitehead. Losing Vea really sucks. Hopefully Nacho can handle full time. Khalil Davis is hopefully already brought up and will hopefully be able to… Read more »

8 months ago

Dean has been the best corner since after playing Seattle last year. I said that and got a bunch of downvotes, but its still true. He needs to be out there working on shutting guys down for Green Bay. Zone coverage is going to allow Rodgers to torch them all.

Pete Wood
8 months ago

I’m not sure it is time to hit the panic button. Against the Bears the defense played pretty good overall. They held the Bears to four scores and forced them to kick field goals twice. Take away one fumble that gave the Bears great field position and a BS roughing the passer call and the Bucs win that game 19 to ten.

8 months ago

The problem with the pass defense is the same problem with the team overall, lack of identity. One second he’s going it on 4th down on our own 20 then the next he’s taking a FG in the redzone when a TD was needed. No aggression in the play calling leads to no aggression on the field. I would highlight the many failed draft picks in the secondary and how awful Licht is but nobody wants to hear that. At this point its funny how many resources have been dedicated to that side of the ball, largely draft picks, yet… Read more »

8 months ago

Rest assured…Rodgers is..chopping at the bit. he knows he can sling that ball downfield. If not a completion then pass interference. Guaranteed against our Bucs.Our secondary is GREAT at ..tackling after the big catch. We shall see. Lets go 50 million dollar man!

Reply to  twspin
7 months ago

Bucs need to be prepared to score. I don’t see them stopping Rodgers on more than a few drives.

7 months ago

All these flaws in the defensive only seem obvious when the defensive front seven isn’t getting sufficient pressure on the quarterback – with sacks, hits, knockdowns, batt-downs, etc.

When the front seven are getting the job done, all those flaws in the secondary suddenly disappear.

It always starts in the trenches.

Unfortunately, we lost one of our best defenders at nose tackle for the season … that isn’t the whole front seven, but it is the anchor.

7 months ago

Not only the loose coverage as stated. The Rb’s out of the backfield killed the Bucs. Barrett can not cover a Rb out of the backfield. The last drive by the Bears I knew the wheel route baby the Rb was coming, Bucs hadn’t stopped it all game. Barrett was in coverage on it. Why not shade the Safety to that side who happened to be Winfield Jr. That needs to be addressed in a BIG way when blitzing.

7 months ago

I have pulled back on some of my enthusiasm as to going to the playoffs because I’m seeing the same thing that you’re seeing Jon as to our safeties. I think you have correctly pointed out the linebackers are not covering as well as they should,amthus the safeties are having to pick up some of their area to put it nicely..

7 months ago

I would have added a #5: Devin White…we drafted this guy 5 overall because of the elite scatbacks in our division, yet he is awful covering them. While he has some good qualities, he’s short, stubby and either overreacts or is slow to react in coverage – the primary reason we drafted White is his primary weakness. That’s a huge indictment on our talent evaluators.

Oh, and we have the reigning sack leader in the league, so what do we do with him this year? Drop him into coverage 40% of the time. Brilliant.

Reply to  FinkleisEinhorn
7 months ago

Devin White isn’t good in coverage. That’s rough when you take a LB 5th overall.

7 months ago

This seems like dejavu. Didn’t we constantly question why former DC Mike Smith kept playing Off Coverage when our Cornerbacks where better suited for Press Coverage?

7 months ago

Restructure some contacts to create cap space and go sign Earl Thomas.

7 months ago

Excellent, excellen
Since Whitehead can’t handle Cover 2, wouldn’t it make sense to play press man Cover 1, with Winfield in centerfield and Whitehead the shallow “rat”?

7 months ago

There’s a reason why ole Mike Smith got fired and Bowles was hired by B.A. it because he his not a off coverage DCbut now he is using that garbage off coverage more than man to man which fits these corners better. I Do not understand why they are using off coverage more because nothing good comes from it as you have seen. I mean anytime the Bears needed a first down and the Bucs were in this garbage off coverage they got them. I would much rather see this defense live and die by playing man to man more… Read more »

7 months ago

I think we have a decent secondary.it’s not great and it doesn’t suck. You pointed out the weaknesses. Only thing will “fix it” this season is better pass rush though. Bowls can definitely do better job using them to their strengths too.
If Licht hadn’t drafted Winfield we would be in even worse shape.

Last edited 7 months ago by fredster
7 months ago

Our secondary is not that good Jon. Despite the hype. Now they are great making tackles after the catch..thats about it. Our secondary only shines when our D line puts mega pressure on the QB. And Rodgers is gonna expose us. He is even better at rolling out of the pocket to make plays. Of course our..statue of liberty can barely run 3 yrds. He has to have great protection. its clear as day, Brady has strted to take a lot of hits. He has lots mor comin guys. Then enter the Dragon..Gabbert whom I have zero confidence in. He… Read more »

7 months ago

What about converting Whitehead to linebacker? Mark Barron made that transition after we gave up on him.

7 months ago

Todd Bowels has given away two games this year. He’s lazy and it transfers to is players. Packers are going kick our asses this week. Because of his crap play calling. Just last all the talk was about, finishing off our opponents. How is that possible with his soft defense. This week i’m hoping he can take his left thumb out of his ass and insert his right thumb. That’s the only change your change were gonna see this week.

7 months ago

This defense is a total shamockery.