Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
No Fly Zone.
There has to be pride in that statement. It’s like when the University of Florida tells people they’re DBU (Defensive Back University), or any school that tries to (like LSU), really – we all know it’s UF. It’s not that other schools don’t have good cornerbacks, and it’s not like good corners don’t get burned in coverage sometimes. But, there has to be an element of pride that comes with using that slogan. There has to be a mentality that no matter what player is on the opposite side of that line of scrimmage, you don’t care. You’re better. And that’s on every play.
I didn’t see a lot of pride in Tampa Bay’s secondary in 2017. I saw some learning. I saw some flashes. I saw some working together. I saw a handful of good things. But, I also saw scared play. I saw soft play. I saw “Just don’t give up the big one” play.
That’s not pride. That’s not a no fly zone. That’s bend but don’t break in the worst way.
Let’s look at some of the numbers.
Statistically speaking, 2017 was awful for the Bucs, especially on defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the ninth-worst defense in the NFL in terms of points given up per game (23.9), but had the worst defense in the entire NFL in terms of yards allowed per game (378.1). A big reason for that was because the 260.6 passing yards allowed per game was also a league worst. The team was sixth worst in terms of total first downs allowed and was a bottom-10 team when it came to giving up plays of 20 yards or more and plays of 40 yards or more through the air. With surrendering key plays and big plays already, the icing on the cake was that Tampa Bay was also close to last in the league in quarterback completion percentage, too.
Short, medium, long, in key situations and in points given up, this Bucs secondary sucked.
So let’s check out who the culprits were.
We have to start with cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes has been a treat of a free agency signing, which doesn’t happen very often for players who sign their deals in their 30’s. According to Pro Football Focus, Grimes graded out the 2017 season with a score of 82, which, to their numerical standards, is labeled as “above average.” Grimes grabbed three interceptions last season, which made it five seasons in a row where he has recorded at least three.
I thought Grimes was fine this season when he was on the field. He’s still athletic as hell, and I don’t even mean that for his age. He has elite recovery speed, jumping ability and ball skills, and was clearly the most polished cornerback on the roster. However, I wonder if Grimes being in Tampa Bay is actually limiting what the secondary does, or at least the way defensive coordinator Mike Smith perceives it. Grimes is an off coverage guy by nature, and for good reason. He has the athletic ability and the wisdom from his years in the game to be less physical at the beginning of the play and more athletic in the end. That works for him.
That doesn’t work for Vernon Hargreaves; that doesn’t work for Ryan Smith; that doesn’t work for Robert McClain; that doesn’t work for Javien Elliott. Those guys not named Brent Grimes got torched this season because the team tried to play a 2-deep safety look where the cornerbacks played off coverage a lot. Grimes made up for it; the others can’t. I get building your scheme around your best players, but not here.
Hey Mike Smith, allow Grimes to play off coverage and tell Hargreaves and Smith to play press coverage. It’s what they do best.
Next let’s look at the next two players on the outside from a grade standpoint and a performance standpoint starting with Hargreaves. Hargreaves was again having a rough start to his 2017 season just like he did during his 2016 season. There didn’t seem to be a lot of growth of confidence going on, and, in fact, Hargreaves looked even more hesitant to start this season, most notably in the Vikings and Cardinals games. Hargreaves’ 72.9 grade from PFF ranked him as the 76th best cornerback in the NFL, but that grade being that high was likely due to the fact that when he was demoted to the nickel position, he played better, especially against the Bills.
The reason I believe he played better as a nickel is because Hargreaves was allowed to press where the Bucs’ outside cornerbacks were not. Hargreaves’ best tape from his time at UF was when he was able to play close to the line of scrimmage and get physical with wide receivers – bumping them, re-routing them, whatever it was. He had a tendency to get bullied by some bigger, stronger wide outs – because he’s small, shocker – but playing him close in press actually gave him a chance.
It is looking like Hargreaves might just be a nickel corner in the NFL. That doesn’t look very good on his draft grade, as he was the 11th overall pick in 2016, but that’s in the past. He’s on the team now and now it’s just about Tampa Bay getting the most out of him. That’s in close coverage from the slot. The need to figure out a way to let him do that and flourish. Besides, the nickel cornerback role is a starting position in the modern day NFL, and the Bucs were in nickel defense over 60 percent of the time last year.
Ryan Smith’s grade wasn’t so kind. His 44.8 grade for the 2017 season was the 105th worst grade PFF gave out for cornerbacks. Now, I actually like Smith. First of all, he was drafted in the fourth round, so people expecting a lot of good out of him in just his second season aren’t thinking with context. Second, the team ran him with the safety group during his rookie year, so this season was his first year even working with the cornerbacks full-time. Third, he was thrust into a starting NFL role way before a logical time clock would have preferred due to injuries to Grimes, Hargreaves and McClain throughout the season.
Smith has long limbs for a guy who is just 5-foot-11, which makes him play bigger. His recovery speed and straight line speed are elite, if you ask me, but when you play cornerback a lot of what you do has to be with anticipation, even with great speed. Smith was trying to learn the playbook, the tendencies of the other defenders in a zone scheme, technique for a cornerback and when to know when the ball is coming all in one season. It’s ridiculous to expect more from someone knowing all that, especially someone from a small school like North Carolina Central.
Like Hargreaves, when the team allowed Smith to play more physical and use his length to get into receivers early, he fared much better. It was the off coverage and relying on anticipation and savviness for the position that only comes with time under your belt that screwed him over. They tried to play Smith like they played Grimes and it didn’t work for obvious reasons. When Grimes can play four of five yards off his guys, Smith has to play six or seven because he just doesn’t know wide receiver tendencies yet and need the extra space to be cautious and react.
I thought McClain was fine as a reserve cornerback, but he’s not a guy you want coming into a starting role, as much as he did in 2017. Elliott has potential as a slot guy, and I think he should stick around. He’s a free agent this year.
But, all of this comes down to a philosophy that is broken. First of all, the Bucs like to play their safeties as multiple as they can. If you’ve read any of my work talking about Tampa Bay’s secondary from this season you’ll know that I hate that. Being multiple is good, in theory, but instead of it confusing opposing teams’ quarterbacks, a lack of pass rush just left both safeties in a 2-deep no man’s land – not helping either outside cornerback enough deep and hardly helping the linebackers over the middle. If you have that in the back of your mind, that you can’t really trust your safeties to help you, we then go into the Bucs corners playing off coverage in a Cover 3 or quarters coverage role where they’re asked to cover an entire third or fourth of the field that stretches all the way to the goal line. You can start to see this recipe for disaster.
Playing off coverage means you have to be savvy. No cornerback on the Bucs is savvy (yet) other than Grimes. The Bucs are basing their entire secondary strategy around one guy who is the only guy they have on the roster who can pull it off – and therefore pulls the rest of the defense down. Grimes is a good corner, and I’m sure the Bucs would love to have him back, but if he’s not willing or they’re not willing to change what they do and what he does to aid the rest of the secondary, even a somewhat better pass rush won’t yield what you want when defending the pass. Just ask the 2016 team. The Bucs had 38 sacks in 2016, which was ninth-best in the league, and yet they still had the 10th-worst pass defense in the league.
It’s not even just a talent thing, although the Bucs could certainly stand to get more talent in their secondary in a few spots. It’s a philosophy thing and it’s a mentality thing. When Hargreaves lines up eight yards off his receiver on third-and-5, it’s not because he sucks, it’s because he doesn’t trust the philosophy, so he’s just making sure he doesn’t get beat deep. When Ryan Smith loses the ball in the air because he was looking around at where the rest of the zone coverage is, it’s not because he’s dumb, it’s because the philosophy is asking him to manage a lot of open space and use experience he doesn’t have.
This secondary needs a new identity. It needs new confidence. And the player on the next page could help bring both in as soon as 2018, if he so happens to end up in red and pewter.