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.

DEFENSIVE LINE

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.

Bucs DT Vita Vea
Bucs DT Vita Vea – Photo by: Mary Holt/P

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.

GRADE: A-

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

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.

Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett
Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

GRADE: A-

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

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.

Bucs LB Lavonte David
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

GRADE: B

CORNERBACKS

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.

Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Bucs CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

GRADE: D-

SAFETIES

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.

Grade: B

COACHING

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.

Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – Photo by: PewterReport.com

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.

Grade: B+

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Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, surfing and family time at the beach. In addition, Cook can be found in front of a television or in Doak Campbell any time the FSU Seminoles are playing. Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at [email protected]

16 COMMENTS

  1. This defense has dominated against 4 of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. They are on pace for the NFL sack record by a player and the lowest rushing yards allowed in a season. The passing yards against the defense would be dissappointing if the coverages were blown, but there haven’t been blown coverages, just some great offensive plays by the opposing team.

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    Rating: +5. From 9 votes.
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    • This is true we are beating up on these young corners for completions allowed but in Bowles’s defense the CB’s just have to make tackles. It’s a Boom or Bust defense no other way to put it.

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      • I am happy with the corner play. These guys are young. Starters Davis and Hargreaves will continue to improve in the scheme and as players. MJ Stewart too. Jamal Dean and Ryan Smith are back from injury and could compete for playing time. Sean Murphy Bunting is down the depth chart but at least he’s getting on the field on special teams.

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  2. Bucs fans appreciate good defense and this is welcomed improvement over last year. Run defense says so much about toughness – and the biggest change so far is this team has it. Hand it to Bowles for bringing the scheme, finding Barrett and coaching guys up. Let’s hope he can continues developing the corners. Although I felt he let us down against the Giants, these guys are coming together. Happy to see how far we’ve come.

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  3. Investing all the draft capital you have in the last two years at corner and grading out at a D- int he first quarter is a bad look, Mr. Licht. Better light a fire under someone’s ass to clean it up. If you take another corner this year so help me!!!

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  4. Great article! I agree for the most part, but I’d give a little bit of slack to the young corners. In this scheme they are matched up one on one most of the time, and usually make the tackle as soon as the WR catches it. Not too terribly bad for a very very young group in this system. I’d give them a C. Also, inside LBs have been amazing without White. A- for them.

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    • Yep, a D- is too harsh. C- is my grade.

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  5. Move Hargreaves to the slot, where he’s been good to excellent in years past, and replace him on the outside with a mix of Ryan Smith and Jamal Dean and see who plays better. Aside from all the penalties, Davis has been decent in pass coverage. MJ Stewart, Ronde Barber’s favorite CB, is getting burned weekly. What team coming up likes to attack the slot on every other play? One guess.

    Notice I didn’t include the safeties in my first paragraph. I think Jordan Whitehead has been playing good enough for that grade to be a D instead of a D-. I think the Bucs need to move Stewart to safety and see if he can earn some playing time.

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    • I say put VHIII in the slot on passing downs. Play him outside in downs 1 & 2 ala Ronde.

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  6. I give our overall Defense a solid C. You are what your record says you are. We are 2-2. Meaning we are a solid 500 ball club. Beat the Saints and we kick it up a notch.

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  7. Giving the defensive line that does not include Shaq an A is generous. Minus his 11 sacks we would have 2 through 4 games. The secondary is atrocious but there needs to be more production from someone else on passing downs to consistently provide pressure. Getting JPP back will help but the interior needs to show more production to warrant an A. This team needs to acquire Peterson or Ramsey in my opinion to salvage the secondary. You move VHIII into the slot where he fits best and let Davis/Dean/Bunting battle for 1 job. MJ should be cross trained at safety and embrace STs. Bucs should also check on Xavien Howard in MIA, he’s got a big contract but they have the space next year to fit it in. Outside of the obvious scheme fit the fact that he’s been quiet in miami while all those other guys wants out says a lot about the guy. If the price is 2 1sts for Ramsey maybe they should consider Howard who might fit better in the locker room.

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    Rating: -7. From 11 votes.
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  8. I think the secondary is a bit too young and a solid older vet could help alot… while Ramsey is an elite talent is a he a guy u want young guys to look up to idk… Peterson may be a good role model for young guys to look to in the locker room as well as on the field

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  9. I’m going to say it… IF the secondary plays a bit better this season…this could be a defense people would talk about with the greatest..of..all..time..and like many of us know, it starts in the trenches. We happen to be number one in that category and like sombrero said,we shut down some great backs. Grading was spot on! My 2 pennies..

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  10. The defense is new. They are young and will gel five Bowles some time before we say all CB’d need to go lol. Some guys here wanted Licht, Winston, and Arians fired two weeks ago. Lol.

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  11. Those grades are thru Bucs goggles. Agree with the above statement of an overall C+ for defense, for a 50-50 team. DL doing well, but need JPP back. Im still betting needs most on 1st round rush DE/OLB next year, even though need OT or stout interior OL. Yup, right on regarding getting a stout veteran at the corner position, Peterson, Ramsey or other proven CB? VHIII needs to be Nickel, Stewart too slow, maybe he can play safety but could be odd man out next year if doesnt improve, and sadly Justin Evans is a damn bust! Lets see if Smith or Dean make difference against Saints?! BA staff looks on point with current available talent, hope things keep going in Winning scheme direction. Many Q’s still pending on this team, lets re-evaluate at season half, will be kool to see if can break 50-50?! Go Bucs.

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  12. Bucs Defensive Snap Count so Far:
    Davis 308
    LaVonte 307
    Hargreaves 304
    Whitehead 303
    Nassib 264
    Barrett 259
    Suh 240
    Edwards 237
    MJ Stewart 226
    Minter 219
    Vea 202
    Gholston 156
    Nelson 81
    White 74
    Nunez-Roches 72
    Darian Stewart 70
    B Allen 56
    Davonte Bond 18
    SMB 16
    Deone Buccanon 8
    Jamal Dean 0

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