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.”

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About the Author: Taylor Jenkins

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6 months ago

Don’t think we should be revealing secrets BEFORE the game. Then they’re not secrets anymore, and we will need our best performance and coaching to come out on top. I wish we were playing any other team in the NFL but the chiefs this sunday.

Reply to  danielob
6 months ago

I guess you didn’t read the article? Not much of a secret really, and nothing told here that would give KC any kind of edge.

Reply to  Dude
6 months ago

actualy just skimmed it, only had a few minutes on my lunch hour. My bad. Still feel the same way about the Chef’s however, they are a very dangerous team, keeping my fingers crossed. I have been following this team since the late 1970’s, had season tickets for 12 years, sat through Vinny’s 6 INT game, Lemon Bennett’s back to back 2-14 campaigns, so I am a fan through and through, just don’t want to be over optimistic. Go Bucs.

Reply to  danielob
6 months ago

Ugh, that’s a pessimistic way to see it. For one thing, Veterans saying “Just keep playing” isn’t a secret 😂, that’s just talking about camaraderie and how our Defense supports each other. That’s not giving anything away. Second, we played the Chiefs this year and barely lost because of one bad quarter when we weren’t completely healthy. Bowles is one of the best at making adjustments, as he did the last 3 quarters of that game and after half time in so many games we’ve played. The Chiefs have played sloppy this year and have relied on talent rather than… Read more »

Reply to  danielob
6 months ago

U want to be the champ ya got to beat the champ.

Reply to  drdneast
6 months ago

I’ll second that.
When you defeat the best the NFL can put in front of you, then you know you are the best!
Danielob, you are hung up with the past. We have a championship level group who are all in this together. Live this present moment and see the bright future as well!
Go Bucs!!! World Champions!

Reply to  SenileSenior
6 months ago

Sure hope your right, the Chefs are very dangerous on offense, I actully think that they might stymie us on offense this game. I asked my priest to pray for us before we beat the Packers, I will make sure he puts some extra prayers before this sundays game. and PS- I was on my limited lunch (half) hour and didn’t get to read the article, just went by the headline, which did have the proper punctuation by the way, ha ha.

6 months ago

Suh wasn’t in Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams. He wasn’t even drafted until 2010.