All-Twenty Tuesday: Bucs’ Secondary vs. Saints
Much of this breakdown is going to be highlighting the bad of the Bucs secondary, so I wanted to start out with some good – because for the first part of the game there was a decent amount of good to praise.
The Bucs’ defensive game plan was plenty aggressive to start this one. In the play above, Tampa Bay deployed Cover 1, which is true man coverage on all receiver fronts with one safety on the back end to cover the entire deep part of the field. In such a coverage shell, it’s up to each coverage player to stay close to their man and follow them wherever they go on the field after the snap. They have deep safety help, but they shouldn’t rely on it heavily.
In the play above, the Saints had just four yards to gain for the first down. The part of this play I want to highlight was actually where the ball was thrown. Safety Jordan Whitehead was the coverage player at the bottom of the screen going man-on-man with Saints tight end Jared Cook, who was out wide. The reason the Saints send Cook out wide is to hopefully get a size advantage against a smaller defender with little help available to them.
With only four yards to gain, they knew this would be the case. But Whitehead played the coverage physical and tight from the get-go, and due to how sticky he was to Cook throughout the route, he was able to disrupt the pass on the bigger player and make it so he couldn’t haul it in.
When Arians talks about his players being soft, he’s not talking about that. That rep was a physical, gritty rep from the smaller Whitehead, and one worth praising.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles continued to change up his coverages throughout the first half, and his aggressiveness with some of them really got the better of the Saints in the early portions of the game.
The Bucs played a lot of Cover 3 to open this game up, which calls for the deep portions of the field to be divided into three zones. There are different types of Cover 3, though, as you can have different players used to occupy each zone. For example, if you have two corners and one safety responsible for each deep zone, it’s called “sky” coverage. If you have one corner and two safeties it’s called “cloud.” The Bucs were giving the Saints a heavy dose of Cover 3 looks from both sky and cloud, and that brings us to the play above.
As the Bucs played a lot of Cover 3 to start, they wanted to throw the Saints off. They did so in the play above by calling a Cover 2 look. But it wasn’t just any Cover 2 look. This play was a Cover 2 invert.
In a classic Cover 2, two safeties are the players who are responsible for the deep zone. The two types of Cover 2 are either Cover 2 man, which means the safeties cover deep and the outside cornerbacks play man coverage; or a Tampa 2 style, which has the safeties playing deep and the corners playing short/flat zones near the line of scrimmage. However, in a Cover 2 invert, it’s the corners that play the deep halves of the field and the safeties who are then free to either blitz or play in a “robber” role over the middle of the field against No. 2 or No. 3 receivers.
In order to pull this off, you need to have strong play from your outside corners and also aggressive play from your safeties to keep an eye on the quarterback to jump routes. Rookies safety Mike Edwards was the one who broke on the route over the middle, and he almost sacked Teddy Bridgewater with it. Instead it was a tackle right at the line of scrimmage – still a good result.
I highlighted these two plays and explained them in detail to show that the Bucs haven’t been afraid to call defensive schemes that are aggressive or attacking in nature. They haven’t been vanilla. The “soft” play in the secondary comes from elsewhere.
I’ve said this before, but context is always key, so I’ll repeat it every time. It is very hard to play in the NFL as a rookie cornerback. It is additionally hard to play against wide receiver Michael Thomas, no matter how many years a corner has been in the league.
I say that as a precursor to the fact that rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting in no way looked like he was ready for regular season action last Sunday. The coaching staff was giving SMB a lot of praise during training camp, and where I liked his tape out of college and thought he could develop into a nice player, I didn’t really understand where the praise was coming from. I saw little flashes from him, but that’s all they were, and they were against guys who weren’t going to make the team.
Fast forward to last Sunday and SMB was the player in the slot at the top of the screen. In that rep, he was in man coverage as part of a Cover 1 shell. He didn’t have help on Thomas, and, as stated before, that’s a tough task for anyone. But he got beat off the line, bullied in the contact window and turned around on the route. He basically lost that rep in every way.
As expected after getting beat a few times, SMB became hesitant to stay close with Thomas.
On the play above at the bottom of the screen, Thomas initiated the contact, and even after Thomas threw Murphy Bunting’s arm down on the comeback route to confirm the separation, SMB was hesitant to close the distance, as to give himself a cushion if Thomas were to turn up field. But that clearly was not what was going to happen. The thing is that it wasn’t SMB’s instinct to stick with Thomas on his break. He stayed off Thomas and should have given up the catch because of it.
And then, of course, there’s the touchdown play, a play that can only be described as “soft.”
I give Murphy-Bunting all the credit in the world for owning this play like a man in the locker room, saying that there was no excuse, and they have to bring him down when they have two guys that close. He even put all the blame on himself.
But I can’t give him too much praise because it is on him.
SMB didn’t even get his hands on Thomas at all. Playing around the 10-yard line is the perfect opportunity to jam a receiver in press technique. SMB did what he was supposed to by flipping his hips to show outside leverage as to funnel the receiver towards the middle where he had help. But giving a guy like Thomas a free release with no physical contact at the line of scrimmage at the snap is just asking to get worked – and he did.
The last play I wanted to point out with Murphy-Bunting is one of the critical plays that Arians himself called out as one they have to defend against better. It was 3rd-and-10 in the clip above. The Bucs had the Saints backed up near their own end zone with score 24-17 in the closing minutes of the third quarter. This could have been the turning point had Tampa made the stop.
The play above is Cover 3 cloud with two safeties and Hargreaves dropping deep at the top of your screen, and Sean Murphy-Bunting playing a short zone/flat zone coverage role to the weak side. Though SMB is playing that zone to help defend against a back side pass to Kamara out of the backfield, he had linebacker help in the flat. He needed to keep sinking on the wide receivers route while staying near the sideline to close the window on the throw to Thomas. That way he could have kept Kamara in front of him on a short pass and also been a player on the out route that ended up being completed. I think he knew that, too. He just wasn’t nearly as confident as he needed to be to defend Thomas, at that point in the game.
Murphy-Bunting is young, and this was his first time getting a lot of action in a starting role when Carlton Davis went out. But he wasn’t ready, and his team needed him to be.
Now I want to focus on Vernon Hargreaves III.
Hargreaves has been having his best year, but as stated before on the first page, it still isn’t up to what this team need from him.
In the play above, Hargreaves was playing in man coverage in a Cover 0 shell. Before you get mad and yell “there he goes playing eight yards off his guy again,” realize that playing that at the snap is what is called for when he is in Cover 0 with no help. He has to make sure he’s covering deep first.
But as the play went on and Hargreaves was able to trail his man, the part I didn’t like was that he wasn’t on his toes to make contact at the catch point, and after that, he blew right by his guy and had to barely drag him down. Hargreaves should have broken on that ball as it was arriving, and should have contested the catch. But he didn’t, and he doesn’t as much as he should. He’s not a contact-first guy.
Thomas was so deep into Hargreaves’ head on Sunday. I mean, the play above just cannot happen from your CB1 – watch the top of the screen. Getting turned around like that is something that underclassmen defensive backs do in college. That stuff can’t happen at the NFL level.
I have to think it’s because Hargreaves was mentally bullied. Even after Thomas caught the pass, Hargreaves was shuffling instead of going after Thomas right away. In doing so, his hesitation let Thomas get to the pylon.
Hargreaves was at the top in man coverage in the play above. Thomas was a step off the line of scrimmage, so there was no chance to jam him up front. But Thomas was constantly the initiator all day when it came to hand fighting in the contact window, and because of this he created consistent separation and was able to convert plays like the one above. Hargreaves is always close to these receivers when they catch the ball and can usually make the tackle to bring them down. But a CB1 needs to disrupt passes and not let them be caught, not just contain them once they are.
Bowles is trying to do what he can to scheme this defense to be aggressive. The problem is the players from the cornerback room aren’t stepping up enough. I think it’s because they’re all being asked to play a step higher than they should be. I think VH3 is a CB2 playing as a CB1. I’m not sure Davis can create the turnovers you need as a CB2. And I think SMB is not quite ready to contribute as a CB3, and I think Stewart can’t keep up to be a starting CB3 in the slot, either.
If they all moved down one level, that might change everything.
The only was I see that as possible, I explain on the next page.