With all of the offensive firepower at the Bucs’ disposal and the addition of quarterback Tom Brady, a lot of pressure fell on the defensive side of the ball for Tampa Bay heading into the 2020 season, specifically an extremely young secondary. And perhaps no unit on the Bucs’ defense better encapsulates the differing levels of experience than their inside linebackers, led by a nine-year veteran in Lavonte David and a second-year budding star in Devin White.
Behind the linebackers lies three starting cornerbacks that combine for just seven total years of NFL experience at this point in third-year defensive back Carlton Davis alongside Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, both in their second season after being drafted in 2019. And then there’s the safeties, with Jordan Whitehead finishing up his third season, Antoine Winfield Jr. starting all 16 games for the Bucs as a rookie this year and Mike Edwards stepping back from starting seven games as a rookie in 2019 to a rotational role in 2020.
That’s a stark contrast from a Bucs’ defensive line that has three different players who have all played under the bright lights of a Super Bowl Sunday. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh fell to Brady in his lone Super Bowl appearance, a 13-3 loss with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, while Shaq Barrett was crowned a champion with the Denver Broncos and Jason Pierre-Paul earned two rings of his own with the Giants.
It’s that veteran leadership that has been crucial to Tampa Bay’s defense according to safeties coach Nick Rapone.
“This may sound crazy, but the untold story is how this defense has really come together and evolved,” Rapone said on Monday. “Because it’s really a bunch of real good veterans mixed in with some young kids and the young kids sometimes had their growing pains and my goodness, those veterans, I can’t tell you how much they helped them. ‘Just keep playing, just keep playing, we got your back, just keep playing back there, just keep doing what you’re doing.’ It was just fabulous to see.”
While the Bucs’ defense was a statistically tough unit, finishing ninth in scoring defense, eighth in total defense and tied for fifth in forced turnovers, a lot of that came from a stellar first half of the year.
Per Sportsnaut, these are the Bucs’ defensive splits throughout the first and second half of 2020:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive stats (Week 1-8): 229.1 pass yards/game, 66.1% completion rate, 83.2 quarterback rating, 28 sacks, 11/11 TD/INT ratio, 70.4 rush yards/game, 3.2 yards per carry.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive stats (Week 9-16): 264.9 pass yards/game, 72.6% completion rate, 105.3 quarterback rating, 19 sacks, 16/4 TD/INT ratio, 85.6 rush yards/game, 3.9 yards per carry.
And Rapone acknowledged those struggles, notching them up to growing pains from a largely inexperienced defense, and these playoffs have been a shining example of the next step in the growth process. In the Bucs’ first playoff matchup against Washington they allowed 306 yards and a touchdown to Taylor Heinicke in just his second NFL start, before putting together great consecutive performances in wins over the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers, forcing six total turnovers in the two contests
“Like Suh. Suh is such a leader. [He’s the] first one out there, works overtime, always saying something positive,” Rapone said. “[Pierre-Paul], Shaq, the inside linebacker David. I would say that [is the untold story,] because we had some growing pains in the middle of the season with the secondary, and those older kids just embraced them and just said ‘just keep playing’. That to me is the untold story of this defense. Then we started to get our feet back underneath us and we’re playing a little better football but that, to me, is the untold story. How these veterans helped these young kids and never pointed a finger at them, just kept saying, ‘Hey, just keep playing football.'”
Pierre-Paul chimed in on Rapone’s statements, but to him it isn’t just about leadership from the older statesmen on the unit, but coming together as a team.
“I’ll say yes it is [about veteran leadership] but in reality, it’s all about the players and coaches,” Pierre-Paul said. “We’re all doing this together. We all love each other, you can just see it. The players, the coaches, the staff members, we’re all for one. There isn’t any individuals on this team, no individuals at all. It’s all for one and you can just see it in the locker room.”