Tampa Bay didn’t have the right fit at strong safety with former first-round draft pick Mark Barron. They confirmed that thinking this week by shipping him to St. Louis for a pair of later-round draft picks in 2015.
By not making any moves to bring in additional help at the safety position before Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Bucs also showed they’re hoping for an addition-by-subtraction outcome.
Fifth-year veteran Major Wright now moves into Barron’s starting role at strong safety and second-year pro Bradley McDougald becomes the team’s primary backup for both Wright and free safety Dashon Goldson. Tampa Bay’s only other safety on roster is Keith Tandy.
Wright has appeared in all seven games this season, starting three. Two of those starts came at free safety when Goldson was out with an ankle injury and he’s totaled 20 tackles and one pass defense for the season.
Wright said Thursday that he’s fully aware of how big this new opportunity is, but he’s just trying to keep his preparation consistent with previous weeks.
“My mentality is still the same,” Wright said. “I’ve got to stay hungry and go out here and just work. I can’t let my guard down just because this opportunity did come. It can leave, too, so I just come out here and stay focused, stay humble and just keep working.
“It’s game week so I can’t just sit around and be happy just because this opportunity did open. I’m still hungry and I’m still going to go out and focus and just keep working.”
Wright’s no stranger to extensive playing time or the Tampa 2 defense being employed by head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The former Florida Gator started 42 games during his first four NFL seasons in Chicago before coming to Tampa Bay this offseason. That stint with the Bears including three with Smith as his boss.
“I know this defensive scheme well,” Wright said. “I grew up in it, basically, since my first year in the league.”
Prior to Thursday’s open locker room, Frazier said Tampa Bay’s secondary has a chance to perform more consistently with Wright in the mix.
“The fact that he’s played in this system definitely helps him, without question,” Frazier said. “He’s a leader back there. He knows a lot of the verbal communication that you need from that position and he has some play-making ability as well. He’s a very good tackler, but his leadership is what kind of sticks out to me.”
Tampa Bay enters Sunday’s contest in Cleveland at 1-6 and ranked last in the NFL in total defense (409.9 yards per game) and points allowed (31.9) and 30th in passing defense (286.0). Improvement is needed on multiple fronts, but one area Smith hopes Wright can help impact is turnover generation. Wright spent four years in the same secondary with cornerback Charles Tillman, a master of the forced fumble.
“I think you could make the case that ‘Peanut’ Tillman is the best,” Smith said of the Bears cornerback and his 42 career forced fumbles. “I’m biased, but the numbers are what they are and we saw it on a daily basis. But they didn’t all just come right away; it took time. First there has to be a commitment. We as coaches keep preaching it.
“He hasn’t had as many opportunities, but Major is a part of the defense that hasn’t gotten as many takeaways as we need. But I’ve been around him, drafted him and seen him play good football. He’s a good football player. We feel confident that we won’t miss a beat. We have to get better play at all the positions, and hopefully Major will give us a boost.”
When Wright or Goldson need a breather, Smith said the staff’s confidence in McDougald to spell either is growing by the week.
“A part of the equation when you let a player go [is that] you have to like what’s here remaining,” Smith said. “McDougald is a part of that, being able to play both [free and strong safety]. As I said yesterday, he’s probably the best combination of a coverage guy with the tight ends and the matchups we have with that along with playing in the box and being a deep safety. He can do it all.”
Tampa Bay’s tweaked secondary will get tested this weekend by an erratic Cleveland offense and passing attack led by quarterback Brian Hoyer. The Browns rank 12th in total offense (355.4 yards per game), 18th in passing (235.4) and 16th in points scored (23.3).
The Bucs have forced 10 turnovers this season (four interceptions and six fumble recoveries), which is slightly below the league average of 11.03. If they’re going to see an uptick in their takeaway numbers Sunday, they’ll have to do so against a team that hasn’t played loose with the football through seven games. Hoyer’s only had two of his 218 pass attempts picked off and Browns ball carriers have coughed up three fumbles that went the other way.