The Buccaneers have played four games in 2019 under new head coach Bruce Arians and staff and have a 2-2 record, which is where most fans, media and prognosticators predicted the team would be at prior to the start of the season. How they got there isn’t the route most expected. Tampa Bay has won two games it was an underdog – in road games at Carolina and Los Angeles where they beat the Rams this past Sunday – and lost at home to San Francisco and the New York Giants, two teams most expected the Buccaneers would beat.
The NFL is unpredictable, and a 16-game schedule can be quite a roller coaster, as Bucs fans have seen so far this year – and in recent years if they have followed the team for any length of time.
PewterReport.com offers its first quarter grades for each Bucs unit and the coaching staff. On Thursday we offered up grades for the offense and on Friday we dish out the grades for the defense.
Take a look and see if you agree, and share your thoughts in there comments section below.
When a defense leads the NFL in stopping the run – allowing just 59.2 yards per game – the defensive line is doing something right. In the case of the Buccaneers defensive line, they are doing nearly everything right. While the stats for the linebackers pop out as opposed to those of Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Beau Allen and Will Gholston, make no mistake it all starts up front with the linemen filling their gaps.
Certainly the coaching staff would love to see some sacks come from this group – Gholston has the lone sack so far – but the most important role they have is to occupy blocks and draw double teams, something Vea and Suh in particular, have done very well. And to have Allen and Nunez-Roches be able to spell Vea and Suh, who has two fumble recoveries, including a scoop-and-score last week in Los Angeles, with not much of a drop-off has been big for Tampa Bay in its efforts to stop the run.
The argument for the Bucs not switching to a 3-4 in years past was always they weren’t equipped from a roster standpoint to do anything other than play a 4-3. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – with help from general manager Jason Licht – flipped that script in just one offseason. With the addition of the leading pass rusher in the NFL in Shaquil Barrett in free agency, the drafting of rookie Anthony Nelson and the conversion of former defensive end Carl Nassib along with Devante Bond, the outside linebackers for Tampa Bay have been the catalyst for the new 3-4 scheme and most would agree it has been an easier transition than most expected.
Barrett leads the NFL with nine sacks, in addition to three forced fumbles, but could use some help in the quarterback takedown department from Nassib who has been close, but is sitting at just one sack this season. Eventually teams will learn they have to double team Barrett and when that happens, Nassib, Nelson, who has forced one fumble, and Bond will have to do more.
Through four games there aren’t many complaints about the Bucs’ front seven and that includes the outside linebackers. And help could be just around the corner with a return of Jason Pierre-Paul slated for after Tampa Bay’s bye-week later the month. Pierre-Paul could help the Bucs’ front seven go from great to excellent if he can return to form after a neck injury sustained in a car accident in May.
When rookie linebacker Devin White was injured in Tampa Bay’s Thursday night game against Carolina in Week 2, a lot of air went out of the “fan expectations” balloon. But in stepped veteran Kevin Minter and how much of a drop off there has been is debatable. Minter doesn’t have White’s sheer athleticism, but there is something to be said for experience, especially in a new scheme. Minter, who has played for Bowles for years out in Arizona, has filled in well in White’s absence and has notched 20 tackles, two pass breakups, two tackles for loss and one quarterback pressure. His perfectly timed blitz in last week’s game against the Rams forced Jared Goff into a poor throw that was intercepted by Barrett.
Veteran Lavonte David is once again playing at his usual Pro Bowl level and leads the Buccaneers in tackles with 30 that includes two for loss, as well as two pass breakups and an interception.
In reserve, Tampa Bay has Jack Cichy although he will miss the next few games with a dislocated elbow injury suffered last week in Los Angeles, and also Deone Bucannon who has experience at linebacker in Bowles’ 3-4 scheme.
The inside linebackers deserve much of the credit for the Buccaneers being the top run stuffing unit in the league through the first four games of the season.
Unfortunately, this is where all the good feelings for the defense comes to a screeching halt. For all of the good things the Bucs have accomplished in 2019, the secondary – particularly the cornerbacks – have been the team’s Achilles heel defensively.
While much of the issues can be pinned to being young, those excuses can’t continue all season. If the Bucs are going to sniff a playoff berth they will have to be much more sound at the cornerback position.
Vernon Hargreaves III is the veteran of the young corps of defensive backs and he has been up and down so far in 2019. While he did nab a pick-six in the season opener and also sealed the Panthers game with an outstanding tackle the following week, teams haven’t shied away from going at the former first-round pick. The one big improvement for Hargreaves we have seen in 2019 – besides managing to stay healthy – has been his physicality and willingness to tackle. Hargreaves is seventh of the team in tackles with 18, to go along with his interception and two pass breakups.
Opposite Hargreaves has been Carlton Davis, and like his teammate, Davis has has some ups and downs through the first quarter of the season. Davis leads the secondary in penalties, although he wasn’t called for pass interference last Sunday despite 68 pass attempts from Rams QB Jared Goff. Yet Davis has at least been a sound in bringing down opponents, as team’s second-leading tackler with 21 stops.
Like the outside corners, the nickel corner spot has been a source of frustration and too many competitions so far in 2019. M.J. Stewart is playing a little better than in 2018, but still struggles to cover once a receiver is able to get into his route. Stewart is much better when he plays physical on the line of scrimmage but can be a liability once he is trailing a receiver.
Rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting has been primarily relegated to special teams so far this season. Ryan Smith has returned from his PED suspension that cost him the first four games, and rookie Jamel Dean, who flashed in the preseason, was back at practice this week. Look for the Buccaneers to try and mix things up in practice and possibly in the games to try and find the right combination in the secondary to help a pass defense ranked 31st in the NFL.
The safety position has been the bright spot in the secondary, with Jordan Whitehead surprisingly being one of the most impactful players on the Tampa Bay’s defense.
Whitehead has been a bolt of lightning from the safety position, flying all over the field to make numerous big plays through his reliable tackling in the team’s first four games. Whitehead currently leads the team with four passes defended, he hauled in a big interception against the Rams in Week 4 and ranks fourth on the team with 19 total tackles.
Across from Whitehead is rookie Mike Edwards, who took some time to adjust following a preseason injury that carried into a limited role in Week 1, but since then Edwards has gained more experience, although he struggled against the Giants in Week 3. He had arguably his best game of the season against Los Angeles with six tackles and has racked up 15 total tackles, two passes defended and a tackle for loss so far in 2019.
With that said, the safeties are still part of a secondary that ranks 31st in pass defense, as stated before, and will continue to be heavily relied in a wide variety of ways in Bowles’ scheme.
Despite allowing a significant amount of points to the Rams (40) and Giants (32) over the last two weeks, the defense has still played a crucial part in the Bucs’ victories this season, particularly on a stop in Week 2 on fourth-and-inches that gave Tampa Bay its first win of the season.
The Bucs may have a 31st ranked pass defense, allowing 318.2 yards per game, but the defense has made timely plays in critical situations. The Bucs secondary has struggled, though Bowles has been able to game plan around that and come up with good game plans that keep Tampa Bay in the game. It’s Bowles ability to get the one-on-one match-ups for Barrett and dial up pressure that has caused errant throws and allowed the Bucs to have four interceptions on the season.
Outside of Suh and Vea, Bowles deserves a great deal of credit for the Bucs’ run defense, which has a league-best 59.2 yards per game. His scheme has made teams one-dimensional and allowed opportunities for Barrett and company to pin their ears back. If the secondary can get into shape, the Bucs will have a Top 10 – if not a Top 5 – defense this year.