Injuries have taken a toll on the Bucs defensive line, and though the unit, largely composed of undrafted rookies and rotational players, performed admirably last Monday, applying pressure was still a challenge for the front four. Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson was hit zero times.
That stat alone illustrates how well the Bucs secondary recovered, considering a pass rush is the secondary’s best friend, as coach Dirk Koetter would say. Covering for longer periods and managing to keep the Panthers under 300 yards through the air while creating two takeaways – Vernon Hargreaves’ tipped-INT and Grimes’ pick in the end zone – the Bucs backend seems to be coming along as coordinator Mike Smith envisioned.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“The guys are starting to gel,” Smith said Thursday. “I thought that that was probably their best game, as a collective group.
“We weren’t able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. I think the guys up front they fought and they battled, but we weren’t able to get any effect, really,” Smith said. “But I thought we did a good job in the secondary. The guys back there had a pretty good understanding of the route progressions and then of course when you get the turnovers, that’s critical in any football game.”
Hargreaves, the Bucs first-round pick, hasn’t recorded his first career interception yet. But the rookie who snagged two during one preseason game can sense the defense starting to come around as a whole.
“Although it’s a new defense, it’s starting to click for us,” Hargreaves said. “We’re starting to understand what we’re going to do and what other guys around us have to do and I think it’s starting to pay off for us.”
The Bucs know they have their hands full this Sunday against Colin Kaepernick. While the sixth-year pro is still knocking the rust off as a passer, he’s one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, rushing for 66 yards in his 2016 debut in Buffalo last week.
“We have to stay in coverage longer,” Hargreaves said of playing Kaepernick. “He’s real agile back there, can do whatever he wants back there really. Great athlete. It does make it a challenge to cover longer, but it’s also a great challenge for our defensive line to keep him contained and wrapped up.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy agreed with that assessment, recalling the first time he faced Kaepernick in 2013, a game in which the duel-threat quarterback threw for 203 yards and rushed for another 42 in a 33-14 win at Raymond James.
The Bucs defensive line, which returns McCoy but will again be without Clinton McDonald and Robert Ayers, will have to occupy rush lanes to contain Kaepernick this time around.
“There’s a lot of athletes in the league at quarterback, but not a lot like him,” McCoy said. “He can gain ground in a hurry and he’s not a quarterback who wastes time making a decision. If he’s gonna go he’s gone and if he goes. You need to get on your horse because he can get downfield quick. We definitely have to be in our rush lane.”
If Tampa Bay’s front four can close running lanes and force Kaepernick to throw from the pocket, Koetter is confident in the secondary’s ability to take control. In fact he’s been defending the unit for a few weeks now.
“Well I think I was the one all along saying I think our secondary has been all right. Now we’ve had a couple issues. We had a couple balls thrown over our head back in the Arizona game. But the main thing, in my opinion, that’s been hurting our secondary is our offense putting our secondary in bad position,” Koetter said, staying true to form in pinning blame on his own unit.
“I think we can cover. I think our corners can cover, I think we can make great plays on the ball, I think our safeties – McDougald and Chris Conte – have played their best two games the last two weeks,” he said. “And then getting Vernon solidified outside and Jude in the slot in nickel … we know Lavonte can cover and Kwon can cover guys at linebacker. If we were in a shootout type game where we had to rely on our secondary, I think our secondary will do fine.”
The Bucs are favored to win in San Francisco. Check out live NFL betting odds, courtesy of William Hill online.