The Bucs’ 7-9 season came after a slow start to begin the year, but Tampa Bay became an improved team during the second half of season, with strides made from many players by season’s end.
Some of the credit for the Bucs’ 5-3 record down the stretch can be attributed to a turnaround of the defense, which saw a franchise record breaking performance by outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, and the development of first and second year players that should a cornerstone of the defense over the following seasons.
PewterReport.com offers its season grades for each Bucs unit and the coaching staff. After a review of the offense On Tuesday, we offer up grades for the defensive side of the ball.
Take a look and see if you agree, and share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Bucs wanted to change their mentality up front and get a little nastier when they opted to sign Ndamukong Suh and put him next to Vita Vea, and they succeeded in that goal. The Bucs defensive line had a career year stopping the run, leading the NFL with a low of 73.8 rushing yards per game to their opponents.
Vea has really come into his own in his second year, showing great versatility with size, speed, and power. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Vea garners Pro Bowl consideration down the road. The addition of Suh only helped Vea’s game as the two defensive tackles clogged up the middle of the line and didn’t let any team establish much of a run game all season. The Bucs’ went through a murderers row of top running backs as well, shutting down Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, and Derrick Henry, just to name a few.
Vea had 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks. Suh had a very productive year in his first season with Todd Bowles, recording 41 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. Bruce Arians has made it known that Suh is one of the top priorities for the Bucs this offseason. And while Vea and Suh got the bulk of the workload, it should be noted that defensive tackles Beau Allen and Rakeem Nunez-Roches played formidably in a rotation along with Will Gholston, who particularly stood out as a backup with 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, and one sack on the season.
This was a star studded group for the Bucs’ defense as Shaq Barrett led the way with a breakout season with a league best 19.5 sacks on the year. Barrett also broke the Bucs’ franchise single season record of 16.5, previously held by Warren Sapp. The pass rush didn’t just start and finish with Barrett, though, as edge rusher Carl Nassib was named a team captain and notched six sacks during the year. despite missing some time with an injury.
The Bucs pass rush really improved when Jason Pierre-Paul returned to the lineup after a fractured vertebrae suffered in the offseason. Unsure if he could possibly ever play football again, Pierre-Paul managed to play 10 games and registered 8.5 sacks on the year. Having Barrett on one side of the edge and Pierre-Paul on the other with Nassib rotating in made the Bucs cause a lot of headaches for opposing quarterbacks. With 47 sacks on the year, the Bucs were tied for seventh in the NFL and had the most by the franchise since they recorded 55 in 2000. While defenses can get sacks from many different positions, Barrett, Pierre-Paul, and Nassib were the top three for the Bucs’ in sacks this year, accounting for 72 percent of them.
Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib are all set to be free agents this offseason and Arians has listed Barrett and Pierre-Paul as top priorities as well. Keeping all three won’t be easy, but if one of them has to go, the Bucs do have second-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson as a replacement. Nelson missed seven games in his rookie season, but he did have an impact game in Week 2 against the Panthers where he forced a fumble on Cam Newton on the way to the Bucs’ first victory of the season.
It was another season where Lavonte David was deserving of a Pro Bowl. David had a productive year as the Bucs’ top linebacker and brought his high level of energy to the field in both the run and passing game. David led the Bucs team with 122 tackles and also recorded 10 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one sack, and one interception. David made those “splash” plays that you expect from your top linebacker, and just as important, was a good mentor to rookie Devin White.
White’s season got off to a slow start with setbacks from tonsillitis and a knee injury suffered in Week 2. After White resumed playing in Week 6, White had a strong finish to the season where he earned back-to-back Defensive Rookie Of The Month honors in November and December. As his game picked up at the end of the year, White showed off his speed with impactful blitzes and a 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown. On the year, White was second on the Bucs with 91 tackles along with four tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries, 2.5 sacks, and two defensive touchdowns. When White was out, backup linebacker Kevin Minter started in two games in White’s spot and record 12 tackles in that time, providing strong depth at inside linebacker for the Bucs.
The Bucs’ cornerbacks had one of the more interesting turnarounds in the 2019 season. This young group struggled out of the gate and had a bad first half of the year. At one point mid-way through the season they were last in passing yards per game, which led to the release of Vernon Hargreaves and increased playing time for rookie Jamel Dean. The Bucs’ secondary were leaving receivers wide open in blown coverages and committing many penalties. The corners were relegated to playing man-to-man defense because Todd Bowles and Bruce Arians didn’t trust them in zone coverage.
But in the second half of the season, rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and second-year player Carlton Davis all turned a corner and made improvements. Davis was able to cut down on his penalties and did a solid job covering the opponents top receivers, which was highlighted by limiting All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to just five catches for 23 yards in a Week 16 matchup. Murphy-Bunting led the team with three interceptions and had a signature play on a 70-yard pick-six to seal a Week 15 victory over the Lions. Dean was second on the Bucs with two interceptions, and his signature play came with a red zone interception late in the game at home against the Cardinals in a Week 10 win. Dean’s insertion into the lineup can be looked at as one of the main factors in the Bucs’ defensive improvement.
Davis’s 20 passes defended was good for fifth best in the NFL, while Dean’s 19 tied him at seventh. The Bucs’ allowed 293.5 passing yards per game through the first eight games of the season but improved that number to 246.7 yards per game after the final eight, improving by 46.8 yards. Though the Bucs finished 30th in passing yards per game, the fact that they finished on a high note with their young players shows signs of optimism heading into next season.
Jordan Whitehead was the leader of the safeties playing a major role in stopping the run. Whitehead had 68 tackles, four tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, nine pass breakups, and one interception on the year in 14 games at strong safety. Whitehead continues to improve his game after two seasons in the NFL.
At free safety, the Bucs had a revolving cast of players at the position, with Andrew Adams, rookie Mike Edwards, and veteran Darian Stewart all seeing some playing time. Adams started to solidify his role with solid play down the stretch and Edwards had an up-and-down rookie season. At times, Edwards seemed a second too late on defending passes and had a drop or two when having a chance to make an interception. With a year under his belt, we’ll see if he can be ahead a step ahead next season. Overall, the group was average with inconsistent play from the entire secondary and the occasional breakdown.
The return game didn’t provide much for the Bucs this year in either kickoff or punt return. T.J. Logan was brought in on kick return and averaged a pedestrian 20.8 yards per return. Dare Ogunbowale took over the responsibility after Logan’s season ending injury and averaged 18.6 yards per return. Punt return was a revolving door for the Bucs as Bobo Wilson started as the punt returner, but was cut after Week 6 due to a lack of production. Logan took over punt returns and had a better success there, averaging 9.5 yards per return, which was 14th in the NFL. Justin Watson and Spencer Schnell returned punts after Logan’s injury and did not have much of an impact.
Matt Gay’s rookie season had a feature of ups and downs as the Bucs kicker. Gay was 43-of-48 in his extra point attempts for a 89.6 percent success rate, and showed off his powerful leg, hitting field goals from as far as 58 yards. While he could hit from long range, Gay was more inconsistent with field goals, making 27-of-35 attempts for a 77 perecent rate. There’s two games that stick out for Gay, though, and that’s Week 3 against the Giants, where he missed a game winning kick from 34-yards, and the last game of the season where he missed three field goals as the Falcons tied it up and won in overtime. Punter Bradley Pinion had a solid season punting 19 balls inside the 20 and leading the NFL with averaging touchbacks on kickoffs 89.9 percent of the time.
Todd Bowles came in as the Bucs’ defensive coordinator this season and made some big changes to the defense. For starters, he switched the team over to a 3-4 and showed why he’s one of the best defensive minds in football. The best thing you can say about any coach is that he put his players in the best possible position to succeed and that’s exactly what he did.
Player such as Shaq Barrett, Carlton Davis and Ndamukong Suh speak glowingly of Bowles. The players want to play hard for him because they trust their defensive coordinator and believe in the system. Bowles got a career year from Barrett and was able to help turn around a young cornerback unit. The entire defense should only get better under his watch next season.