One of Tampa Bay’s healthiest position groups in 2015 has also been its most volatile.
Cornerbacks have been shuffled in and out of the rotation for 15 straight weeks as the search for a consistent combination failed to produce up to coaches’ expectations.
Sterling Moore (692 total snaps), Alterraun Verner (547), Jude Adjei-Barimah (433), Johnthan Banks (382), Mike Jenkins (305) and Tim Jennings (282) – they’ve all taken their turns starting or coming on in relief.
The year’s biggest letdown/curiosity/disappointment has to be Banks, a second-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2013 who entered the year as the team’s top corner. After starting five of the Bucs’ first seven games (he missed Weeks 4 and 5 with a knee injury) Banks suddenly fell out of favor. Undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah slid into his outside corner spot Week 9 against the New York Giants opposite Moore.
At the time of the switch, coaches stuck with standard coach-speak responses when asked about Banks’ demotion. From the Week 9 Giants game to Week 14 against New Orleans, Banks existed almost exclusively as a special teamer. He failed to see a single snap at corner three times and played just 25 of 220 snaps in the three games he did appear.
Head coach Lovie Smith the day after losing to New York: “Yes, coach’s decision. Jude [Adjei-Barimah] and Sterling [Moore] both played, started the game yesterday. I feel like they both played well. We have looked for different combinations back there. I like some of the things both of those guys did yesterday.”
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier that same week: “Whoever is in there has to step up and do what the last guy was doing, if not better. It’s just all about understanding our defense.”
Tampa Bay stuck with Moore and Adjei-Barimah on the outside and Verner in the slot at nickelback until recently. Adjei-Barimah’s declining play hit its nadir in St. Louis when he was burned for a 60-yard, first-quarter touchdown that propelled the Rams to an easy 31-23 Thursday night victory. Banks relieved the rookie after that score and returned to his starting role last Sunday against Chicago, playing 63 of 71 snaps.
When asked about Banks’ increased defensive visibility, Frazier didn’t exactly lay the praise on thick. “He did some good things at times. [We’re] always looking for the consistency in his play, but at times he was out there, he did some positive things that will allow him to get back on the field again this Sunday as well.”
Although Bears quarterback Jay Cutler completed 20 of his 27 passes for 156 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, he rarely went Banks’ way and the corner finished with three tackles.
The most significant play in which he was involved last week came on the first snap of the fourth quarter. With the Bucs clinging to a 14-13 lead, Culter hit a wide-open Ka’Deem Carey in the left flat for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Chicago the lead for good. The Bears lined up in a three-tight, two-back set and Banks was Tampa Bay’s outside man on its right side. Tight end Rob Housler came in motion to Banks’ side and the corner covered him into the end zone while no one – notably linebacker Danny Lansanah – slid out to account for Carey.
Banks, a first-team All-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back in 2012, is in line to start Tampa Bay’s final game Sunday against the NFC South-leading Panthers. He enters 2016 on the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and his role moving forward will be a hot topic in the offseason.
“I think there have been a number of different things” leading to Banks’ reduced playing time this season,” Frazier said Thursday. “He’s done some good things for us and has had an opportunity to show why he deserves to be in the mix in 2016. He’s done some good things at times. [He] just has to keep giving himself opportunities and keep getting opportunities to make plays for us.”