Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.

SIKKEMA’S STAT OF THE WEEK

As promising as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster looked on paper, there was uncertainty at a handful of positions during 2016’s training camp. The safety position was one of them.

In that unit there was Chris Conte, a Lovie Smith guy who was coming off his second-most tackles in a season in his first as a Buccaneer. Conte had been re-signed a one-year deal and appeared to be a starter. There was Bradley McDougald, a four-year player and three-year starter for the Buccaneers, who saw increased production in each of his three seasons as a starter. There was Ryan Smith, the young, shiny new toy of an athlete for defensive coordinator Mike Smith to make into either a cornerback or a safety, depending on need. As training camp progressed, Smith played more and more safety, which led for people to believe he’d be the backup free safety.

Then there was Keith Tandy.

Bucs DBs Chris Conte and Ryan Smith – Photo by: Mark Cook/PR

Tandy was a converted cornerback from his West Virginia days. With McDougald solidifying the free safety spot over the past few years, that left Tandy on rotational strong safety duties to get playing time. This four-year player left over from the Schiano era had been fine in a backup role, but was never really given a chance to start due to smaller measurables and a log-jam in the depth chart.

Tampa Bay brought in Conte while Tandy was still on the roster, which meant the team probably didn’t think too highly of him as a starting-caliber safety. During one of the days of training camp, I remember watching a particular play where Smith paired up with Conte at the safety spots – Conte at strong, Smith at free. I remember watching Conte and Smith show great chemistry on a switch in coverage mid-play that resulted in confusion for the quarterback, which Conte turned into an interception. Knowing the Buccaneers also had Major Wright, Javien Elliott, Josh Robinson and Jonthan Banks as potential roster-filling defensive backs, I remember leaning over to the person next to me after that play and saying,

“Is Tandy even going to make this team?”

***

It was week 2 in Glendale, Arizona.

The game was pretty ugly so far for the boys from the Bay. The Buccaneers found themselves down 17-0 as the half was coming to a close. The Cardinals had the ball at their own 49-yard line with one timeout and were looking to add to their lead before halftime. 

The situation was second-and-1; the result was a touchdown.

On a play that was as simple as Cardinals wide receiver Jaron Brown running a 9-route as fast as he could, Tampa’s secondary looked helpless. For a team whose passing defense had been a problem for far too long, the sight looked all too familiar.

Chris Conte and the Buccaneers secondary had a poor outing against Arizona. – Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs S Chris Conte – Photo by: Getty Images

Paired in man coverage against a fast receiver, Conte was the man at fault on the play. It was his job to just not let anything get behind him. Instead, he was too flat-footed as the speedy Brown just blew by him, a fundamental lapse in judgement as a safety.

As the points went up and the frustration was shown by the defense, I half-heartedly laughed and shook my head, leaned over to my dad, who was watching the game with me and said to him, “This safety group needs a playmaker, but what else is new?”

***

In a stadium that already held some very important Buccaneers memories, in Week 12 at San Diego, Tampa Bay was trying to add some new ones to that mix with a four-game winning streak, ensuring that the team would be playing for the playoffs come season’s end.

With 2:50 left in the fourth quarter and the Bucs up 28-21, the Chargers were driving down the field. Tampa Bay fans could see the writing on the wall with this one. In the past – not that the Bucs led too often – final drives like that one by opposing teams were usually met with soft coverage and prevent defense which had a tendency to back the defense into a goal line stand, which typically failed.

As the Chargers marched all the way down to Tampa 31-yard line, Bucs fans started to feel those feeling again.

But three words change the tone of that game, and perhaps the season.

“Watch this route.”

That’s what rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said to Tandy before recording his game-sealing interception in the end zone. Tandy was making his first start of the season due to Conte injuring his back and, boy, did he make the most of it.

After that play I looked at my friend, leaned over and said, “What a play, man. What a play. Tampa never gets takeaways like that.”

***

Here we are looking back on the 2016 season, and, honestly, other than linebacker Kwon Alexander having a career year, Keith Tandy was the biggest impact player on that defense. After staying in that rotational role for most of his first four seasons and the first 12 weeks of this past season, Tandy was given his chance to start, but thankfully for him, he wasn’t starting at strong safety, he was the starter at free safety.

When Tandy came to the Buccaneers in 2012, the team ran a lot of dime and nickel packages, but the roles of the defensive backs were different than they are now. The thought process behind making Tandy a strong safety right out of college (where he played corner, too) was that if the coaches could sure-up his tackling, Tandy would be given chances to also line up against slot receivers in those nickel or dime formations. This, in theory, was supposed to get the most out of his skills as a corner and safety. It did to a degree, evidenced by his three picks during the 2013 season subbing for Dashon Goldson, but it never translated into a starting gig.

Bucs DBs Vernon Hargreaves III, Brent Grimes and Keith Tandy – Photo by: Getty Images

Tandy is better suited to play free safety, and when he got the chance to start in Week 12 of this year he showed why. When Tandy was called on to make the start for the injured Conte, the team rotated McDougald (who was the better tackler) from that free safety spot to strong safety instead to make sure the team’s run defense wasn’t left vulnerable, as is often the case when teams run a base formation with just two linebackers – though Tampa’s safety have fluid roles under Mike Smith’s defense.

That left Tandy to play more of a free safety, centerfield role, which involves much more awareness, pre-snap reads and anticipation than playing strong safety does. We now know that being able to process and analyze the whole field of play is where Tandy performs best.

The result was, well, season-saving. In the first game he was given the start versus San Diego, he recorded an interception. In the second game he was given the start versus New Orleans, he recorded an interception. And with the playoffs still on the line, in the final game of the season versus the Carolina Panthers, he recorded two interceptions.

Tandy tied the team-high in interceptions in just five games. He recorded 45 tackles in games that he started and even led the Buccaneers in total tackles, as well as takeaways in that final game of the season.

But what was even more encouraging than his own numbers is how his presence on the back end elevated the rest of the team. Playing safety is often about presence. It’s about doing your job and being in the right spot so the ball never comes your way. It’s about positioning yourself correctly so that a riskier throw has to be made. That’s what we saw out of Tandy down the stretch.

Tandy’s presence gave the rest of the defense confidence in Week 17. It allowed for Brent Grimes to have the interception he did, for Conte to have a pass break up that should have been called an interception, and for McDougald to stop the Panthers’ potential game-winning two-point conversion.

Going into 2017, the Buccaneers will have some decision to make. Both McDougald and Conte are unrestricted free agents, meaning either could walk to any other team they want, if offered a contract. One thing, however, should be a for sure, and that is that Tandy should be the starting free safety come training camp. The offseason, secondary-wise, should be all about who they can pair with him to work best, which could even come through the draft.

Bucs S Keith Tandy – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

In those five games, Tandy showed a combination of awareness, intelligence and playmaking ability we haven’t seen in Tampa Bay in a long time. Tandy himself credits that to staying on the same team throughout the early part of his career, and constantly building upon what he’s been taught. Starring on special teams helped him become a better open-field tackler. Now, he knows how to take what he see in the film room and recognize it on the field. 

As the ball went up in the air and Cam Newton again tried to challenge Tandy’s side of the field, Tandy made him pay with his second interception of the day. When that happened, I leaned over to my co-worker in the press box and said, “Boy, how far has Tandy come, huh? What a player.”

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: [email protected]
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nitey
nitey
5 years ago

Have to say choice A. I’m not a fan of giving up draft choices when you have as many holes as we have. That said, I’m not sold on your safety choice either. I do like the 1st and 3rd choice, but I’d opt for a wide receiver as the #2 pick or another DT since we may have to replace Ackeem Spence if we don’t re-sign or replace him in free agency.

Just not a fan of a ‘project’ player in the 2nd round.

Iowabucfan
Iowabucfan
5 years ago

A

rastaman40
rastaman40
5 years ago

I’d say scenario A. I agree that we need a TE but in such a deep draft do we spend a 1? WR is so much more a need and you have failed to address that in A and the option in B is underwhelming.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan
5 years ago

No trade-ups that result in a total loss of Day 1 or 2 pick, unless we’re “playing with House money” (i.e., we’ve already received a bonus pick to trade with). Minor trade-ups that involve trading down later or a loss of a Day 3 pick, maybe.

Every single pick between the 1st and 6th rounds is precious …

stlbucsfan
stlbucsfan
5 years ago

I’d have to say Option A but Im not a fan of either. Adams is not the player I would trade up for so that put that option off the table but the Bucs should re-sign McDougald which makes selecting a S in the 2nd round unnecessary. As a Gators fan I remember Jamal Adams getting taken for a ride by Scarlett and missing plenty of tackles so that took him off the draft board for me. McDougald seemed to hit his stride when playing next to Tandy so IMO the safety issue is solved draft one in the later… Read more »

mtbruning
mtbruning
Reply to  stlbucsfan
5 years ago

I like using mcdougal as a short term fit. I would love to have pro-bowlers at every position but sometimes a better than average guy will do.

macabee
macabee
5 years ago

Modesty requires that I have no comment here! lol.

MudManVA
MudManVA
5 years ago

I always seem to follow Mac. lol I wouldn’t in any way shape or form take draft #2. I’m with STL on this, we need a strong safety not a free safety (you just did a piece on Tandy). We need an offensive focused draft not a defensive on early. Evans is the BUCS only real offensive weapon. Brate & Humphries are good but not a playmakers. A #2 WR is a must with depth, and with Martin in limbo a RB. Howard in round 1 cool. round 2 needs to be a play making WR or RB like Mixon.… Read more »

mtbruning
mtbruning
Reply to  MudManVA
5 years ago

Agreed. Rounds two and three need to be RB and WR. Not sure about Mixon as the RB in round 2, maybe 3.

vorblaw
vorblaw
5 years ago

I’m not trading up for anyone other than Dalvin Cook. Has speed, can catch and can block in the backfield. So D. None of the above.

David DeLeon
David DeLeon
5 years ago

Nice Cover 3
Out of these 2 I would take scenario 1

My scenario would be

1. Trade back 10+ spots get Demarcus Walker
2. Buddah Baker
3. Josh Ryeynolds

Great for need and we get extra picks
Just saying

David DeLeon
David DeLeon
Reply to  David DeLeon
5 years ago

If Baker is gone next best TE, Butt or Ole Miss TE

cgmaster27
cgmaster27
5 years ago

Great article as always Trevor. When it comes to Tandy, I was always a big fan of his, and for some reason, he just never got playing time. Even in his limited roles , he would make plays, and still not get time. I also agree that he enters camp as our starting FS. As for the safety from Uconn, Obi one as you say, havent seen much of him as he plays in Conn., but I love his size. He had a strong senior Bowl from what Iv’e read and his focus is something that won’t be allowed on… Read more »

macabee
macabee
Reply to  cgmaster27
5 years ago

In my many travels about the Interwebs every day, I come across all sorts of things. You may like this, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. lol. But never say never!

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2691011-nfl-mock-draft-2017-complete-1st-round-predictions-before-nfl-honors

David DeLeon
David DeLeon
Reply to  macabee
5 years ago

Wow that would be pretty sweet, it is the draft and until it happens anything can go.

Naplesfan
Naplesfan
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
5 years ago

I dunno, Trevor … people get very excited over quality running backs, but this is more and more a passing league where running backs are platooned and specialized. Ezekiel Elliott as a high first round pick is the exception not the rule, and in the end, though leading the league in rushing yards, he couldn’t get his team beyond the divisional round … while the two best offenses in the league, led by the current regular season MVP and the GOAT quarterback were in the Super Bowl. Given the non-longevity of most running backs, I still object strongly to taking… Read more »

cgmaster27
cgmaster27
Reply to  Naplesfan
5 years ago

Naples, I think your underscoring the value of a running back. Even though it’s a passing league, Elliot helped the Dallas Defense by keeping them off of the field. He drastically helped Dak as he took a lot of pressure off of him in passing coverage’s. And the difference between Zeke and Cook is a much better pass catcher coming out than Elliot. So that adds value. IN short, there is ZERO chance Cook makes it to 19. We have as much a chance of that happening as we had of Ramsey falling to us last year.

macabee
macabee
Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
5 years ago

Trevor, I trust you saw the first 3 rounds of my mock draft in PR’s Bucs 7 Round Mock Draft. Great minds think alike. lol.

https://www.pewterreport.com/pewterreport-coms-2017-bucs-7-round-mock-draft-2-0/#comments

plopes808
plopes808
5 years ago

Safety isn’t a big enough need to warrant trading up. That said, the first option would be the better of the two. However, I’m not sure about S in the 2nd either as I feel WR may be a better option.

Of course, this all depends on how the draft plays out before pick 19 and OF COURSE if Dalvin Cook is there, we have to take him.

mtbruning
mtbruning
5 years ago

No way on #2. We have needs in offense and I’d rather spend free agency finding a quality strong safety and pass rusher with late round developmental players to provide depth. I love O.J Howard in round 1. He would give us a weapons for Winston and since he can block he can help improve the O-Line. Getting better in two position groups with one pick is a no brainer. I would go WR, RB (either order works for me) and WR is a deep class. Drafting for speed can be a fools errand (looking at you Darrius Heyward-Bey). Even… Read more »

MudManVA
MudManVA
5 years ago

Mac, book it! No way I think Cook is there at 19, but if he is that is a no brainer!! As you say we can dream.

MudManVA
MudManVA
5 years ago

1st round dream list
1 WR Williams
2 RB Cook
3 WR Davis
4 TE Howard

Rusty Rhino
Rusty Rhino
5 years ago

Most Definitely A, After reading this write up of S Obi Melifonwu, along with a write up on TE OJ Howard. I would like to read a write up on Tanoh Kpassagnon he is a DE interesting to me. Him in the 3RD round. Oh! Yeah! I like your Cover 3 reports. Very good reads and interesting thoughts and views. Thanks Trevor! 1- Is all about getting #3 more weapons and a good weapon in run and pass plays. 2- This adds a young good player with potential and experience to play in both safety spots to our Defense. 3-… Read more »

bucinkorea
bucinkorea
5 years ago

A all day.

matador
matador
5 years ago

Rounds 1-2 = OL and WR in either order
Rounds 3-4 = DL and RB in either order
Fill in with BPL after that
That gives you three players that will help JW, and by extension help the defense.
The following year you probably go for best pass rusher available first, another OL (ideally a Center) a WR/TE and a DB.
Knowing we won’t hit on every pick suggests we need go BPA for less than a king’s ransom in FA, because we’d still have holes after those two drafts.

BucsPhan2Phear
BucsPhan2Phear
5 years ago

No fluff. Just right. Thank u for talking scheme. I don’t think it was fair to attribute improved communication to Tandy as the entire defense had began to perform better prior to his starting, like Conte and McDougald did. They all performed great toward the end of the year. If I’m licht, I bring them all back and develop a day 3 project. Let them sort out who stars and who is the #3, who still would play a lot of ball. Both scenarios are bad ideas. John Ross changes the offense. OJ is a luxury. With a possession slot… Read more »

SaskBucs
SaskBucs
5 years ago

A but I am kinda on board with Matador up there. Rounds 1 and 2 I am hoping for DL, WR in either order 3,4,5….. OL, RB, WR again no particular order just best draft value or BPA at those positions. If Howard is the 1st pick fine but then I am with drdneast in thinking another DL is important … impact pass catcher and a pocket pusher are top of my wish list… a C or new T is up there as well but doesnt seem like that is a priority. I know Cherilus was in, but I cannot… Read more »

scubog
scubog
5 years ago

Gee Trevor, you put out an A or B question and you get C,D,E,F and G scenarios in return. Perhaps you should dummy down the instructions. For me, Option A would be by choice when compared to your Option B. In no way could I think it wise to trade up for a Safety or draft one in the top ten. I like the choice of O.J. Howard because I think he has some unique qualities and receivers are always more plentiful to pick up later. I’m not too keen on a Safety in round 2 and I think we… Read more »

kram0789
kram0789
5 years ago

I like the first draft better, but I would be looking for an offensive lineman in the third round.

Buc 1976
Buc 1976
5 years ago

I really like A!!
OJH can block and run darn fast for a TE paired with our Harvard TE and Evens and another WR with SPEED will help JW alot. As for Obi he looks good but so did Barron.
The DE from Villanova looks like he needs some coaching but has alot of upside because he is somewhat green. Wit Spence being smallish we could use a larger DE also.

Nathaniel_17
Nathaniel_17
5 years ago

Summary of this article:

If Trevor leans over in your direction, this man is ready to drop some knowledge on you.

Great article.

drdneast
drdneast
5 years ago

As i stated earlier this wrek,i like our current crop of safeties and see no need st spend a high tound draft pick on one. After the second Falcons game, the entirre seconday got their act together and played welll. Yes, Conte got beat eaarly in the yeat but I remember one particular pass play against the Rams whern Tandy was beaten even worse. This team needs another nasty DL and if there is one available when their pick comes along they should grab him. I see mo need to draft a safety in the 1st roound. If we r… Read more »