Perhaps it is too much, too soon for Tampa Bay’s defensive backs against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bucs’ revamped secondary is still in the midst of adjusting to new terminology and a new defense from defensive coordinator Jim Bates, in addition to transitioning from Raheem Morris’ daily tutoring to new defensive backs coach Joe Baker.
Against Dallas in Tampa Bay’s 34-21 loss in the 2009 season opener, the secondary seemed to be missing free safety Tanard Jackson, a two-year starter who is suspended for the first four games of the season due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Jermaine Phillips, a five-year starter at strong safety, spent the entire offseason and most of training camp at weakside linebacker before being moved back to the secondary to take over at free safety at the last minute due to Jackson’s suspension.
The Bucs secondary now features Sabby Piscitelli, who made his sixth NFL start on Sunday against the Cowboys, and second-year player Elbert Mack, who was seeing his first true action as the Bucs’ starting nickel cornerback.
Throw in facing a veteran, Pro Bowl quarterback like Dallas’ Tony Romo and all of the youth, position shuffling and inexperience of playing in a new defense with new starters manifested itself into a series of staggering coverage breakdowns that allowed four pass plays of 42 yards or more against Tampa Bay as Romo threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday.
That was the most passing yards allowed by a Bucs defense since Kansas City’s Trent Green lit up Tampa Bay for 369 yards through the air in a 34-31 home win over the Chiefs on November 7, 2004.
The buzzword was “communication” in the Bucs’ locker room after the loss to Dallas – specifically, miscommunication in the secondary.
“It was just communication,” said Phillips, who along with Mack, missed a key tackle and allowed Miles Austin to score on a 42-yard touchdown pass right before halftime to give Dallas a 13-7 lead. “On one of the touchdowns, I missed a tackle – a tackle I should make. We have to stand up and take responsibility. We had a couple of busts and some communication issues. It’s all about communication. We’ll get back to the drawing board next week and I think we’ll be fine when we get to Buffalo.”
Mack espoused the same company line and expressed confidence that the mistakes would be corrected before next Sunday’s game.
“There was bad communication between the corners and the safety,” said Mack. “There was stuff that we have to get worked out. We’ll work out the wrinkles. We’ll be alright.”
Thanks to coverage breakdowns and Romo’s pinpoint passing, there are plenty of wrinkles for Bates and Baker to iron out this week before heading to Buffalo to face quarterback Trent Edwards and the dangerous pass-catching duo of Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, both of whom are 1,000-yard receivers and have the speed to beat teams deep.
Tampa Bay made Dallas’ less heralded receivers look like Pro Bowlers on Sunday as Roy Williams, who finished with three catches for 86 yards, blew past Piscitelli and Phillips, who was guilty of taking poor angles on more than one play, for a 66-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Patrick Crayton, who finished with four catches and a game-high 135 yards, beat Piscitelli and Phillips for an 80-yard touchdown and a key, 44-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
“There were situations that they did a great job at,” Piscitelli said. “They put us in situations that we were unfamiliar with and we didn’t communicate correctly. I put that on myself in not communicating correctly in some of the plays. We’ll improve on that. On the Roy Williams touchdown, it was a seam play. We were in cover 3. It’s a zone call and I have to play it better. I think everyone could have done a better job on that. We have to clean it up.
“On the [Crayton] touchdown, we were in somewhat of a quarters coverage and I have to get on top of that a lot quicker. The quarterback held the ball and then let it go. We all have to get better, but I’m going to blame myself for all of it, to be honest with you. We can’t be doing that in our secondary.”
Regardless of the new defense, the Bucs defensive backs are well versed in cover 2, cover 3 and quarters coverages having played them on a regular basis under former defensive backs coach Monte Kiffin. Despite playing in a more man-oriented coverage scheme under Bates, the Bucs secondary has struggled with zone coverage plays this year for some reason.
In the preseason, Tennessee’s Kenny Britt scored a touchdown by getting behind safety Donte Nicholson in cover 2. Against Jacksonville, receiver Troy Williamson torched Piscitelli, who was also playing cover 2, for a 74-yard score on the Jaguars' first offensive play. And versus Houston, Jacoby Jones streaked by Jackson for an 87-yard touchdown against cover 2.
Piscitelli said that Dallas’ four big passing plays that covered 232 yards weren’t necessarily a the result of playing in Bates’ new system.
“It has nothing to do with that,” Piscitelli said. “We’ve played those coverages before. I’ve got to step up. I’ll put myself in the front of the line for that. We have to go to the film and get it corrected. We’re going to fix it for sure and we’re going to be great.”
An initial look at the game tape by Pewter Report shows that starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber appeared to be assignment sound against the Cowboys and didn’t play a role in giving up any of Dallas’ four big passing plays of 42 yards or more.
Barber, a 12-year veteran and one of the game’s best playmakers at the cornerback position, blamed the eagerness of some of his defensive backs for the assignment mistakes on Dallas' long touchdown passes.
“Obviously we can’t give them up,” Barber said. “We’ve got to play smart. We have to be a smart defense. We have to do our jobs and let plays come to us – don’t try and make them. We beat ourselves, really. I give [Dallas] all the credit in the world. They are a very talented offensive football team, but we have ways to take them away. When we had an opportunity to do so, we didn’t.”
Barber acknowledged that the safeties were not assignment sound and that there was miscommunication at play. He had warned the Bucs secondary prior to the game about letting receivers get behind them in coverage.
“At the end of the day, [the safeties] are our last line of defense,” Barber said. “I told our guys before the game that they have Marion Barber and Felix Jones, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be how we defend the vertical pass. We didn’t do it well enough. Obviously, it’s a new scheme and I think we can play it well. We just can’t give up big plays doing stupid stuff. Once we realize that plays come to you and that you don’t make plays, we’ll be a better team.
“The one thing we’re trying to preach with this new scheme is that excuses don’t matter. It is what it is. Jim calls the defense. We play the defense. There is a way in which it should be run and if we run it the right way we’re going to be very good. If we don’t, then we give up four big plays that break your back. ‘No excuses and no explanations’ has been our motto around here for a long time and that’s never going to change.”
The Bucs certainly need the communication in the secondary and the execution of Bates’ coverages to change for the better if they plan on beating Buffalo on Sunday.