New Buccaneers safeties coach Nick Rapone was an open book when addressing the team’s safeties and how they will be used in Todd Bowles’ defensive scheme, which will feature seven defensive backs on the field at times when facing four-receiver sets. Rapone talked about his newest addition – Kentucky’s Mike Edwards, who was the team’s third-round pick – and what he brings to the team.

“Mike is exactly what we looked for,” Rapone said. “I’ve been with Todd now – we started out together in Arizona – the safeties in Todd’s defense basically run the defense. They have to call out the fronts, but they have to play multiple positions, and we thought he had the ability to do everything that we wanted. First of all, he’s physical. Second of all, he can blitz. Third of all, he can cover. Fourth of all, to the best of our knowledge, he is cerebral. And the safety in this scheme has to be cerebral.

Kentucky S Mike Edwards
Kentucky S Mike Edwards – courtesy of Kentucky

“We saw all those qualities in him. We’re not traditionally the 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety because we’re a man team – we’re an aggressive football team, so they have to be able to play man-to-man. We think he fits exactly what our safeties need to do.”

The playmaking Edwards was the leader of Kentucky’s secondary and played an instrumental role in the Wildcats’ 10-win season last year, which was capped off by a bowl win over Penn State.

“Without a doubt he was a leader, and that’s exactly what you are looking for,” Rapone said. “When you play safety in the NFL you have to be able to announce and align people up. That’s why if you look in the secondary the oldest guys playing – if you’re in the secondary – are safeties because they have to be cerebral, intelligent kids. We just had out in Arizona [Antoine] Bethea, who just went to the Giants. He’s going to be 35 years old, but he has the intelligence to line people up, especially in a scheme like Todd’s which gets quite diversified.”

While Rapone is excited about what Edwards brings to the defense, he’s equally encouraged about the role that M.J. Stewart, last year’s second-round pick, can play moving into his room, as Rapone will coach the team’s safeties and nickel cornerbacks, which are similar in nature to the safeties because they are playing in between the hashes. Stewart was miscast as a nickel cornerback last year as a rookie in Mike Smith’s defense, but Rapone said that the nickel cornerback role in Bowles’ defense would be different.

Bucs CB MJ Stewart - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs CB MJ Stewart – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“We’re going to attempt to put M.J. in the nickel and then play some free safety,” Rapone said. “M.J. has never played safety, so it’s going to be a learning process. Evans, in the room, seems to be quite cerebral. And that’s the only thing we can judge right now. All we’re doing is walking through, and [Justin] Evans can’t practice right now, so all he does is sit in the meetings and regurgitate the information, and that’s about as far as we can go right now. We’ll know more in the OTAs and mini-camp. But right now they all seem to be extremely compliant. They all seem to try to learn it.”

Bowles and Rapone like the way Stewart plays down hill and attacks. He may be used more in that role than be isolated in covering slot receivers.

“In our system, the number one person that blitzes is the nickel,” Rapone said. “He is a physical player. He was a rookie and there was a learning curve. Our nickels have to blitz and our nickels have to play man-to-man. He has the innate skills to play man-to-man. He’s physical enough to blitz. We’re basing it on what he can do from what we saw.”

Last year, Stewart seemed a step too slow off the ball playing in the slot and was routinely beaten to the point where he was benched in favor of Javien Elliott. Rapone said that Stewart has enough initial quickness and speed to handle it.

“Enough of it at the nickel – not at corner,” Rapone said. “Remember, the nickel a lot of the times is the guy that is protected. You can always double with the nickel and he has to play run support. He was a very good special teams player and he is a physical kid. The nickel in our scheme has to be physical and not finesse. Everybody talks about the Honey Badger – he was physical. He would throw his body around. We are looking at M.J. as the same type of player.”

Jordan Whitehead, the team’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, has shown some promise in run support, but Rapone and Bowles need to see how he can cover in training camp in order to gauge whether or not he could be a starting strong safety in his second year.

“The good thing with him is he is a true hammer,” Rapone said. “We know from video he will hit you. Now, can he go out there and play man-to-man? We’ll find out. Can he go out there and play half the field? We’ll find out. Can he slip to the middle sometimes? We’ll find out. But what he brings to the table without a doubt is that he likes to hit. Now, we had a little kid out in Arizona who never back deep at the beginning because we blitzed him and he was able to play the run game. What Todd does better than anybody is make sure we maximize exactly what that young man can do. That’s why we’re so diversified and that’s why Todd likes to keep – in third down there will be seven defensive backs on the field. Most of the time, Todd kept five safeties because of their importance.”

Cardinals SS-LB Deone Bucannon
Cardinals SS-LB Deone Bucannon – Photo by: Getty Images

Although newly acquired Deone Bucannon is technically a linebacker, playing the Moneybacker role in nickel defense, Rapone said that his experience in Bowles’ scheme, his versatility and his background as a safety makes him very valuable in this defense.

“If you break down an NFL football game – if there are 60 snaps in a game, regular personnel is only going to be in there 18-20 snaps,” Rapone said. “The majority of the snaps, the third wide receiver is in the game, so the nickel comes in. He’s a Moneybacker because when we drafted him out of Washington State he was running a 4.49. So he can handle running backs and he can handle tight ends. At Arizona, when we played Dallas or any team that just lined up and did nothing but run the football, Todd put him at strong safety, so he can have that big hammer at strong safety. Bucannon will work with the linebackers, but he’s played enough safety that if we ever need him to play against a team that is going to line up two tight ends with two backs and run the football. We can put him in there and have a 6-foot-1, 222-pound strong safety. That’s what Bucannon gives you.”

Putting all these pieces together and playing to each players’ strength is quite a challenge for Bowles, who has to vastly improve a secondary that was repeatedly torched last year on a defense that surrendered an average of 29 points per game. Rapone said that’s where Bowles excels and that’s what makes him a special defensive coordinator.

“The biggest challenge is what he does best,” Rapone said. “Every day he looks and sees what these guys can do. Now he hasn’t seen enough, but he has a very broad package and he will start the sculpture of the package according to what these kids – I’m 62, I call them kids – what these players can do. His biggest challenge, which is good for us, is putting them in the right position. That’s what he does best. And they’ll play for him. He’s a players coach. They’ll play for the guy.”

Previous articlePR Roundtable: Favorite Bucs’ Day 2 Or Day 3 Pick
Next articleBucs Locust Sees Herself As Both A Motivator And Teacher
Scott Reynolds is in his 24th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]

17 COMMENTS

  1. I like what I’m hearing more and more each week, but I’m reserving judgement for what I see on the field.

    +13
    -1
    Rating: +12. From 14 votes.
    Please wait...
  2. This sounds better than anything I’ve heard since Monte Kiffin was here. Mike Smith was a joke. Lovie Smith’s defense was passed by in today’s NFL. Raheem Morris and Schiano were clueless. After reading this, the draft make a lot more sense. Good sign.

    +25
    -2
    Rating: +23. From 27 votes.
    Please wait...
  3. Great Great article Scott. I Love talking X’s & O’s any time of the year. The chalk talk around draft time is always what I need to tide me over the off-season until training camp rolls around. (Which can’t come soon enough for me) What Rapone was saying about Stewart I was thinking a little bit last year when watching his college highlights. He loves playing physical and kind of had the demeanor more of a safety. It seems like this staff won’t be trying to jam any round pegs into square holes with these players. Playing to a player’s strengths….what a concept?

    +14
    -2
    Rating: +12. From 16 votes.
    Please wait...
  4. Smith was the worst defensive coordinator I’ve ever seen on any team ever.

    Bowels knows his shit I just hope they can learn quickly and have all right pieces they need this year.

    +12
    -2
    Rating: +10. From 14 votes.
    Please wait...
  5. When Mike Smith came over in 2015 to be Dirl’s DC her was saying how his defense was flexible and he would design a package that fit the player’s strengths. I say that as a word of caution. However, I am encouraged by all that I am hearing. I guess I am starting to sip the Kool-aid.

    +9
    -1
    Rating: +8. From 10 votes.
    Please wait...
  6. 76Buc I too remember Smith saying they would be “multiple” in their defensive alignments…Blah Blah. I think the game had long passed him by even BEFORE he was named Bucs D-Coordinator. I actually Believe this staff when they say they will design schemes to fit their players talents. Time of course will tell.

    +6
    -2
    Rating: +4. From 8 votes.
    Please wait...
  7. Mike Smith was a total joke. I mean if you fire a defensive coordinator in middle of season and defense improves with your LB coach taking over what does that say? It says He was so bad anyone could do better lol. That was main reason I wanted Koetter gone. He refused to fire that clown.

    +6
    -2
    Rating: +4. From 8 votes.
    Please wait...
  8. I was one of the many very critical of the draft as I wanted at least 1 offensive lineman drafted early as that would have fixed the offensive and I feel they should have accepted the trade down offer in the 2nd as there were so many good corners there…
    However, I like what I am hearing and at least they HOPEFULLY fixed the backend of our defense. I’ll give the coaches the benefit of the doubt and root on the Bucs like I have been doing since 76.

    +9
    -1
    Rating: +8. From 10 votes.
    Please wait...
  9. Yup as a I suspected they will be using all the DB’s on game days and changing them up for certain packages to keep them fresh in a rotation. Similar to what the Patriots and Seahawks do to an extent.

    +4
    -2
    Rating: +2. From 6 votes.
    Please wait...
  10. There was one of the coaches that said that Justin Evans was not ready to practice yet> That is an under reported story to me. It was a toe injury. Someone not healed from a toe injury 6 months after it occurred suggests that they may have that toe problems for the rest of their career.

    Just a little concerning for the guy I thought was going to be our number 1 safety this year.

    +4
    -3
    Rating: +1. From 7 votes.
    Please wait...
  11. @geno711

    I think it is wise the Bucs take precautions and not force Evans back. You are correct that a toe injury not allowed to heal ends up being a chronic issue and could end a player’s career.

    +6
    0
    Rating: +6. From 6 votes.
    Please wait...
  12. Very enlightening article. Anyone who watched our attempts at defensive football last season should have noticed that our defensive line wasn’t the problem with defending the pass. The pass rush was adequate. The real culprit was the “pass-sieve” scheme being employed by guys who were literally off the street and a once highly regarded vet who was pouting. At the very least, there now is a plan to harass the receivers and be able to run with them when the ball is snapped rather than give them free reign. It’s clear that this year’s Draft goal was to increase the speed and swagger in the secondary.

    Fix the secondary, prevent the opponent from scoring at will, Bucs offense can be more balanced not having to play catch-up, maybe, just maybe RG and RT not such a big issue after all.

    +4
    0
    Rating: +4. From 4 votes.
    Please wait...
  13. In 2016 the Bucs finished 9-7 thanks in great part to a late season 5-game winning streak fueled by a smothering defense that ranked in the top 5 during that time frame. This was Mike Smith’s defense. The following season, before training camp started, Mike Smith said that now that his defense has learned basic math, it’s time to teach them algebra. He did so well with that defense that teams around the league wanted him for their head coach. The Bucs didn’t want to lose him so they signed him to a multi-year contract. And then BOOM, from that point on the defense sucked. They replaced key players, had press guys playing off, had corners playing safety, injuries happened, etc. There was no recovering from the numerous changes that happened in the off/pre-season. I’m not sure if Mike Smith’s scheme was to blame or if he just wasn’t able to adjust to the players strengths the way Bowles supposedly does. My point being… we’re bashing Mike Smith for being a bad coach when in fact he had one of the best defenses, albeit for only 5 games, in the 2016 season. At the time he was being praised as a great defensive mind.

    Last season the Jets allowed 441 points. Only 3 teams allowed more: Raiders, Bengals and Bucs. And this is after Todd Bowles had the head coaching job for 3 years, picking the players he wanted to mold his defense around. Before we all go crazy and proclaim Bowles as the defensive guru of the century that will finally give Tampa some clout, let’s not forget that we had those accolades already with Smith, and our hopes were sailing.

    So just slow your roll. That’s all I’m saying. Seems like I’m saying a lot more, but really, that’s all I’m saying. It just took a while for it to come out.

    +6
    -1
    Rating: +5. From 7 votes.
    Please wait...
  14. Justin Evans might not see the field again this year for ever. A toe injury forced Prime Time into retirement the first time and limited him when he came back years later.
    https://www.footankleinstitute.com/blog/deion-sanders-turf-toe/

    +2
    -1
    Rating: +1. From 3 votes.
    Please wait...
  15. MJ Stewart was scrappy in the preseason last year. Mike Smith coached it out of him as best he could. Here’s to hoping the new staff can turn things around for MJ.

    +3
    0
    Rating: +3. From 3 votes.
    Please wait...
  16. I haven’t given up on the 2018 draft class.

    I saw a lot that I liked.

    Vea was the best I thought he could be at seasons end. Stewart was a very good special teams player and was scrappy before he wore down. Davis was thrust into the role early but I liked how he played the game. Cappa while raw showed traits that made him desirable with his mits. Whitehead quietly put together an underrated season as a rookie. Watson is simply a gamer and a matter of time before his role increases on offense. And finally, I hope Cichy can come back from his injury and make the roster.

    Don’t sleep on the 2018 draft class because of the previous coaching staff.

    +2
    0
    Rating: +2. From 2 votes.
    Please wait...
  17. Bucianco – I understand what you are saying about Bowles D in New York, but I have also seen a lot of really good offensive and defensive coordinators that failed as head coaches that returned to their coordinator positions and resumed successful careers. Wade Phillips is just one name that springs to mind. I get what you are saying, and I think it’s a valid point. I think a lot of us are assuming/hoping/wishing that Bowles can somehow turn this defense around in one off-season and we can have a reasonably competitive defense again in Tampa Bay. I’m trying not to assume myself…..but I am hoping.

    +1
    0
    Rating: +1. From 1 vote.
    Please wait...