Despite their fine showing against the Lions backup offense on Saturday, it’s no secret that the Bucs defense has been more than a little bit leaky throughout the second half of the season. It’s been a dramatic fall from grace, as the Bucs defense went from posting the second best EPA (Expected Points Added) per play from Weeks 1-8 to ranking 23rd in the NFL from that point on.
Tampa Bay’s sack and pressure numbers remain great, but their 4-man rush has been stymied considerably since the loss of Vita Vea in Week 5. The ripple effect has exposed the Bucs coverage weaknesses, namely Sean Murphy-Bunting, Devin White and at times Jamel Dean, and a lack of press man coverage that has put top corner Carlton Davis in less-than-ideal situations at times.
Seeing the unit, and even specific players, struggle over the past two months got my wheels turning. Was there a way to limit the play of Murphy-Bunting, get better players on the field more often, take advantage of the blitzing strengths of Devin White and enhance the 4-man pass rush all at the same time?
Maybe. It’s not a solution for all down-and-distances (no defensive alignment is), or maybe even most of them, but against a pass-heavy approach like Atlanta’s, or what Minnesota was forced into during the second half in Week 14, I think the following personnel grouping can be a solution for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Here’s my idea.
Defensive Line: Shaq Barrett, Ndamkuong Suh/Will Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul and Devin White
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Yes, that’s right. Devin White on the defensive line. You read it correctly. Here’s my rationale:
1. White is at his absolute best as a pass rusher. He has the power to beat blockers 1v1, and the quickness to work around them as a rusher too. He’s relentless and physical in his approach, and his speed in pursuing quarterbacks outside the pocket is a huge weapon. As often as White can rush, I want him rushing, especially considering his struggles in coverage. So if I can take him out of coverage altogether in certain pass-obvious situations and make him a rusher? Heck, yes, I’m doing it.
2. White would basically take the place of either Suh or Gholston in this package, but he has more flexibility to play inside or outside on pass-obvious downs. White can move inside over a guard or center as a standup rusher, or he can play outside which would allow the Bucs to use Pierre-Paul as a 3-technique rusher more often, a situation he thrives in. On the outside, White has a better chance of winning than Gholston or Suh, and is a more athletic option to run down more elusive quarterbacks.
Linebackers: Lavonte David and Jordan Whitehead
Obviously we are talking about a dime defensive package here, but for the sake of role comprehension for readers, we’ll use the term “linebacker” to describe the roles of David and Whitehead in this grouping. Keep in mind, this is a pass down defensive package, so you’re admittedly giving up something against the run. But Whitehead is such a physical and instinctive run defender, as well as being an excellent tackler in space, that his presence helps alleviate that concern some, if the opponent were to try and hit a few draws on this defensive grouping.
Whitehead has also been a pleasant surprise in coverage this season, but he’s still at his weakest as a deep safety. That was obvious against Atlanta in Week 15 when he couldn’t provide adequate help to Sean Murphy-Bunting in deep coverage against Calvin Ridley on a number of plays, even as the duo were doubling the Falcons star receiver. Whitehead would be much better off working curl-flat responsibilities and operating as a middle zone defender in coverage, where he is superior to White in that role. He’s also a strong blitzer, with the flexibility to move around the defense and allow Bowles to play chess with his other safeties too.
As for David, he stays doing what he does best, excelling in coverage, making plays in space and quarterbacking the defense from the second level.
Outside Cornerbacks: Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean Slot Cornerback: Ross Cockrell
It’s Week 17 and the playoffs are coming. At this point in the season, if development hasn’t happened for a player, I’m turning the page on that chapter until next year. That’s where I’m at with Sean Murphy-Bunting. The second-year cornerback still has a ton of promise, but right now his technique, his mental processing and his ball skills are just not where they need to be. Since Ross Cockrell has been out on the field, he’s been better in every way than Murphy-Bunting. He’s earned the right to play over the younger corner in nickel situations.
Jamel Dean could still be a liability, but he also offers upside that Murphy-Bunting does not. Dean’s ball skills are consistently on display, and he’s shown flashes of becoming a quality starting cornerback in the NFL that Murphy-Bunting has never shown. If Dean struggles in the playoffs, I wouldn’t hesitate to get Cockrell out there in base situations for him, but for now I’m willing to roll with Dean and hope his playmaking ability comes up big in a key game.
Safeties: Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards
In this dime, 3-safety defense, I would deploy Winfield at strong safety and Edwards at free safety, but I would predominantly play from a 2-deep shell. The nice thing about having Edwards and Winfield at safety is that both of them can play single-high and both of them can play in the box and blitz. So again, there is a ton of flexibility with this defensive package, and it gives you the ability to put a playmaker like Edwards on the field, where his ball skills and awareness could potentially change a game in one play.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The potential downside of this defense is pretty obvious: they’re going to have to prove they can adequately keep a third-and-long run from reaching the sticks. But in certain game situations where a team is highly unlikely to run the ball, it’s worth the small risk to get a potentially big reward from deploying this personnel grouping.
I’m not as smart as Bowles, but this defense puts White and Whitehead in better position to succeed, gets your best three cornerbacks on the field, gives you flexibility with Jason Pierre-Paul’s deployment and increases Mike Edwards’ snap counts in hopes that his playmaking ability can help turn a game in the Bucs’ favor. If you can become more dangerous against the pass in the NFL in 2020, from a coverage and a pass rush perspective, that is an avenue you need to explore as a coaching staff. I think this dime, 3-safety, 3-defensive linemen look could be one potential answer for a Bucs defense that is struggling to slow down high-octane passing attacks this season.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft