Bucs MLB Kwon Alexander - Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit with a 2-3 record after five games as they take a much needed rest with a bye week. While most teams would prefer their by week to come a little later, the Bucs believe it couldn’t come at a better time. With a rash of early-season injuries, Tampa Bay gave its players the CBA-mandated four days off, then gave them an extra day.
PewterReport.com is taking a look at each unit during the bye week and will offer up our thoughts and grades on how each one had performed through the first five weeks. We will also pick a player from each unit that we feel has been the best in the team’s first five games.
On Saturday we offer up our defensive grades.
Tampa Bay’s defensive line may be the most depleted unit in the NFL, let alone on the Bucs.
With injuries to Jacquies Smith (IR), Robert Ayers (ankle), Gerald McCoy (calf) and Clinton McDonald (hamstring) over a span of five weeks, the Bucs have been missing at least one of their key players along the line – and up to all four – every game this season. Generating a steady four-man pass rush without your best rotational defensive end (Smith), your 9.5-sack free agent signee (Ayers), your four-time All Pro (McCoy) and your veteran one-gap tackle (McDonald) is difficult, to say the least. It explains the low sack numbers (ranked 22nd with nine) and QB hits.
Bucs NT Clinton McDonald and Will Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
All things considered, the Bucs front four, while hopeful to recover and improve, has performed admirably to this point. Players like Will Gholston, who’s graded out well from coach Dirk Koetter the past few weeks, and Akeem Spence, a formidable run-stopper, have stepped up in larger roles. As have undrafted free agents DeVonte Lambert and Channing Ward, two success stories credited to the Bucs front office.
While Tampa Bay has struggled to get to the QB, it’s held opponents to an average of 103 yards on the ground (16th in the NFL) and 3.7 yards per carry. It’s also important to note that the number of sacks has steadily declined, save for a five-sack effort against Denver, since Week 1, as lineman started going down.
It’s seems like there’s been a different MVP along the line every game. From McCoy in the opener to McDonald in Week 4 to Gholston last Monday, a new player has visibly stepped up and led the charge. But given Gholston’s durability and several highlight stops in a 17-14 contest while surrounded by young reserves, the 6-foot-6 utility linemen has to be the “Top Performer” though five games.
UNIT GRADE: C
FIVE GAME TOP PERFORMER: WILL GHOLSTON
Lavonte David, an All-Pro LB, hasn’t been as consistent in his fifth season – no tackles in Week 2 and subject coverage on Monday night – yet still ties for third in tackles (26), including five stops behind the line, which ties him with leading-tackler Kwon Alexander.
SR predicted in the “2-Point Conversion” column Tuesday that David would miss the Pro Bowl, speculating that David could still be adjusting to the the new defense or the scheme simply doesn’t call for the Will LB to make splash plays – but whatever the reason, David hasn’t been the same. Though as the season progresses, SR predicted, David will continue to make strides and perform more consistently.
Bucs MLB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Getty Images
As for Alexander, who has 43 stops (13th in the NFL), the second-year LB has been reliable through five games with flashes of greatness. He ended Tampa Bay’s turnover drought, intercepting a pass against the Rams and returning it for six, and has been used on multiple blitzes, resulting in two sacks and several successful pressures. He and David continue to be a bright spot for the future of Tampa Bay’s defense.
Daryl Smith has played half as many snaps as the aforementioned duo (156 compared to 321, or 48 percent compared to 99), as the Sam LB comes off the field in nickel packages. In his limited action Smith has just nine tackles and one pass deflection – which came in the form of a tipped interception against Carolina. Playing only half of games, it’s hard judge Smith’s performance but Tampa Bay clearly sees the veteran as a role player.
UNIT GRADE: B
FIVE GAME TOP PERFORMER: KWON ALEXANDER
After investing heavily in the offseason – adding first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves and signing priority free agent Brent Grimes – the cornerback position has slowly come along over five weeks.
Coordinator Mike Smith said it would take roughly four games to get an accurate measure of the overall defense, and that seems to hold especially true for the corners. Brent Grimes struggled in Arizona but turned in two solid performances against Denver and Carolina – a promising sign from the 32-year old pro.
Hargreaves, meanwhile, hasn’t made the splash plays seen in the preseason, but Smith and Koetter insist he’s progressing and can handle the best wide receivers in the NFL. Known for his physicality, the former Gator has also recorded 23 tackles, fifth most on the team. Grimes has 17 and the secondary’s lone interception.
CB Brent Grimes – Photo by: Getty Images
The starting duo rarely comes off the field. Grimes has played 98.8 percent of snaps and Hargreaves, 96.3, leaving reserve Jude Adjei-Barimah and Alterraun Verner, both of whom rotate in the nickel package, to play 24 and 33 percent, respectively. Johnthan Banks has not played a defensive snap. In limited action Adjei-Barimah has five tackles, two breakups and a couple successful quarterback pressures while Verner has three breakups (all against Arizona) and four tackles. Both have proven to be solid reserves but it’s clear the Bucs trust Grimes and Hargreaves as every-down players.
Moving to the safety position, Bradely McDougald seems to grade out well every week against the run while Chris Conte has done some good things under the radar (see two TD saving tackles in opener) while also contributing in run defense.
Known more as an in-the-box safety, McDougald has 26 tackles but just three pass breakups. Conte, who’s similar in style, has 34 tackles and no deflections. Keith Tandy, for his part, has played 29 snaps with his biggest play coming on a third-down run stuff during the first quarter on Monday night.
Without understanding the scheme or knowing exactly what certain plays calls for, it’s hard to criticize individual players for perceived missed assignments. That said, of the 12 explosives given up through the air by the defense, one would assume a few of them fall on the safeties’ shoulders.
Tampa Bay’s 22nd ranked passing defense (allowing an average of 262 yards) has surrendered over 300 yards twice (mostly off one or two plays) and allowed a 60 percent completion rate thus far in the season.
UNIT GRADE: C
FIVE GAME TOP PERFORMER: BRENT GRIMES
Special teams have been scattered for Tampa Bay through five weeks.
On one hand punter Bryan Anger has been excellent, ranking sixth in net average (43.4 yards) and fourth in pinning the opponent inside its own 20, with 11 such punts. And on the other hand Roberto Aguayo, taken in the second round, has been unreliable, to put it mildly.
Bucs K Roberto Aguayo – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The struggles of Aguayo, the highest drafted kicker since 2005, have been talked about ad nauseam. He’s 50 percent on field goals (4-of-8) and missed an extra point against the Rams, leaving the Bucs to chase points throughout the tightly contested game.
Some suggested Aguayo was kicking for his career on the game-winning attempt Monday night, and while he delivered and redeemed himself from two previous misses, that should tell you all you need to know about the highest-touted kicker out of college in recent memory. Aguayo hasn’t been as advertised thus far – but there’s plenty of time left. Check out SR’s notes on two Pro Bowl kickers, Sebastion Janikowski and Stephen Gostkowski, during their rookie years.
The key for the former Seminole this season, SR wrote, is to reach 72 percent as soon as possible – which means hit the next seven field goals in a row.
As far as kick returning and coverage is concerned, Adam Humphries has been solid handling the former while Russell Shepard has once again led a good coverage team. Humphries has returned 11 punts, averaging 10.7 yards a take-back and a long of 25 yards. A few of his returns – most notably against the Rams in the final minutes – have come at critical times and put the Bucs in great field position.
The Bucs kick coverage, meanwhile, has held opponents to nine returns for 59 yards. They also recovered a muffed kick against Carolina, one of four takeaways on the night.
UNIT GRADE: C
FIVE GAME TOP PERFORMER: BRYAN ANGER
Similar to the offense, the Bucs defense has been plagued by injuries and therefore reliant upon undrafted rookies and rotational players to step into larger roles, particularly along the line. While the depleted unit’s pass rush has dropped off since the opener (save for a 5-sack game against Denver), they’ve still managed to contain the run fairly well. The 20th ranked defense overall, Tampa Bay ranks 16th against the run, allowing an average of 103 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry. They’ve also been excellent on third-down, allowing a 31 percent conversion rate (19-of-61), and getting off the field 8-of-9 times on the “money down” in their most recent contest Monday night.
Where the defense has struggled the most in giving up explosive plays. The Bucs have allowed 12 passes of over 25 yards through five weeks, with several going for touchdowns or long third-down conversions. Losses against Arizona and Los Angeles could largely be attributed to the defense allowing too many plays over top.
While the amount of points against – 142, fourth most in the NFL – is somewhat misrepresented given the amount of times the offense has put the defense in sudden change situations inside the red zone, the explosive plays are real and something that Mike Smith and Co. will look to get under control. As mentioned, the defensive coordinator said it would take at least four games to get an accurate idea of the defense – as players and coaches are still learning – so time will tell how the unit progresses through the next 11 weeks.
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Looked like a fair assessment of every units performances except for the special teams. Take out Arroyo’s kicking and this unit definitely deserves an A. The punting has been great and the coverage has been good, i.e. see Russell Sherpherd’s fumble recovery. Punt returns haven’t been spectacular but good and are without all the drama we had last year with Bobby Rainey’s undependable hands.
I think the defensive scheme is actually going to come together although I do question the use of some of or defensive lineman. I have see Gerald McCoy and on Monday night Will Gholston both drop back into pass coverage.
What is that all about?
No way is DL a C. Two out of 5 games doesn’t award them with a C.
Sorry Horse, I agree with the grade, especially since the DL has been losing a starter per week since the first game of the season. Don’t know many teams who could sustain such loses off one unit and still be successful.
drdneast; I hear you, but did we ever have a solid starting rotational group? Maybe the DT’s, but I don’t think we were strong enough in the DE arena; Ayers is the only one.
We are 28th in scoring defense…..Not sure how that rates a C.
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