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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”