The Bucs’ ever-changing practice schedule will make it difficult to publish a new SR’s Fab 5 column this week with practices from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. So I’m publishing two SR’s Bucs Camp Insider columns this week – one on offense and one on defense – on Wednesday instead of a traditional SR’s Fab 5 on Friday.

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Bucs Secondary Impressing

It’s crazy to think that Tampa Bay’s starting secondary has been featuring Vernon Hargreaves III and Carlton Davis at cornerback, Sean Murphy-Bunting and M.J. Stewart at nickel and Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards at safety. Of these six defensive backs, Hargreaves is the elder statesman, as this is his fourth year in the league. Davis, Stewart and Whitehead are all entering their second season while Edwards and Murphy-Bunting are both rookies. It’s an incredibly young unit.

But this young secondary is playing with confidence that comes from making plays in practice. Confidence within young players is a very dangerous thing – in a good way – because it can make those players play above their abilities and mask their deficiencies. Remember, there is a combined one NFL interception between all of those young defensive backs.

Aside from the nickels and safeties being heavily involved in the blitz game, as expected, the coverage from the secondary has been much tighter than a year ago, although Bowles does mix in some off coverage in with his usual press-man coverage calls. Still, even when the Bucs’ cornerbacks are playing off, they are playing more aggressively and jumping routes and breaking passes up instead of letting the receiver catch the ball and then make the tackle, which we saw far too much of under former defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

One thing to note, Stewart is a much better blitzer than he is in coverage where his lack of speed is still apparent when lining up in the slot at nickel. Murphy-Bunting is much faster in coverage, and probably has the inside track to win the nickel job.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Legendary Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber has been out at practice and has been impressed with Murphy-Bunting’s footwork. Murphy-Bunting reminds me of a young Donnie Abraham when he was a rookie back in 1996 – smooth and confident in coverage with playmaking skills.

Abraham started at nickel in his first year and set the Bucs’ rookie record with five interceptions that year en route to becoming Tampa Bay’s all-time interception leader with 31 by 2001 before Barber eventually broke that mark with his franchise-best 47 when he retired after the 2012 season.

Spence, Hargreaves Standing Out On Defense

In what could be a huge boost for Bucs general manager Jason Licht’s reputation when it comes to the draft, the early results are quite favorable for Hargreaves and outside linebacker Noah Spence throughout the first week of training camp. Hargreaves and Spence were drafted in the first and second round, respectively, in the 2016 draft and have really underperformed over the last couple of seasons.

Hargreaves and Spence were thought to be better fits in Todd Bowles’ aggressive 3-4 scheme, which features tons of blitzing and press-man coverage, and that’s proved to be true so far in camp. Hargreaves’ confidence is growing and he’s turned in several takeaways over the last three practices before Wednesday’s break. It’s hard to believe that he’s the elder statesman in the cornerback room at age 24, but that’s the case for Hargreaves, who is in a contract year as his fifth-year option was picked up for 2020, but is not guaranteed.

Bucs OLB Noah Spence and RT Demar Dotson
Bucs OLB Noah Spence and RT Demar Dotson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Spence looks like a brand new player standing up as an outside linebacker, which is what he did in college at Eastern Kentucky. He was always too light to be a 4-3 defensive end, but looks natural as a 6-foot-2, 248-pound edge-rushing linebacker. He’s given left tackle Donovan Smith fits, even bull-rushing Smith twice and knocking him down in one practice on Saturday – although Smith is dealing with an Achilles injury and is not 100 percent.

There was a lot of offseason buzz about Spence and newcomer Shaq Barrett, whom some inside the walls of One Buc Place think might lead the team in sacks this year. But so far, it’s been Spence who has started at right outside linebacker on the weak side, opposite Carl Nassib, while Barrett has been running with the second team. Spence is playing with speed, power and confidence, and it will be interesting to see if he can get it to translate into the preseason games.

Bucs rookie linebacker Devin White, the team’s first-round pick, had an unspectacular first week of practice. It looks like he’s swimming a bit in grasping the defense and his role in it, in addition to making the calls. That’s to be expected as he has a lot on his plate, and he’ll only improve.

The good news is that the team’s veteran linebackers – Lavonte David and reserves Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon – are flying around making plays due to their experience. White is the team’s starting MIKE linebacker and Minter is his backup, whereas David is the starting MO ‘backer with Bucannon as his backup. Devante Bond is the Bucs’ third-string MIKE linebacker and has really impressed, too.

Bucs D-Line Will Be Plenty Good

No Gerald McCoy, no problem in Tampa Bay. Newcomer Ndamukong Suh has had a dominant start to camp, especially in the run game where he’s had some epic battles already with Ali Marpet. Suh has drawn rave reviews from the Bucs’ brass in terms of how seamlessly he’s fit into the locker room and aided the Bucs’ culture change.

Suh and nose tackle Vita Vea have been quite formidable in the middle of the Bucs’ run defense. Vea is playing with a ton of confidence and power, and is giving center Ryan Jensen all he can handle.

Bucs DL Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston
Bucs DL Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Will Gholston has looked good in this 3-4 defense at defensive end on the strong side and Beau Allen has seen time at both nose tackle and at three technique, filling in for Vea and Suh. Although he’s a sub, Allen will still play a lot as Bowles likes to rotate his defensive linemen often to keep them fresh for the fourth quarter. Jeremiah Ledbetter and Rakeem Nunez-Roches have been the best backups at defensive end and defensive tackle, respectively.

The Bucs may just keep six defensive linemen with their 3-4 defense. There have been plenty of instances where Bowles plays with just two defensive linemen along with three or four linebackers in nickel and dime defensive packages.

SR’s Bucs Shots – Defense

• What helps Nunez-Roches is that Bucs special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong is using defensive linemen as tight ends on extra point and field goal protection, which is something new in Tampa Bay. On the first team its Allen and Gholston at tight end next to offensive linemen. On the second team it’s Vea and Nunez-Roches. Nunez-Roches has proven to be versatile and valuable, and could be earning a roster spot with his value on special teams as well as being a reserve lineman on defense.

• Free safety Justin Evans remains sidelined with his heel injury and he may have a tough time winning a starting role given how well Whitehead and Edwards have been playing. Edwards had two interceptions, including a pick-six, on Monday, and Whitehead had an interception at the start of camp on Friday. It’s only been one week, but Edwards and Whitehead have impressed. Keep in mind that even when Evans returns he’ll have a fair amount of rust to shake off as he hasn’t practiced since last November.

• One thing Bowles does that I haven’t seen any other Bucs defensive coordinator do in training camp practices is mix up his units when he substitutes. In past regimes, the second- and third-team defenses were all reserves and played together. Bowles will start out with his starting defense and then as the practice goes on, he’ll mix up the unit. The starting secondary might be playing together with the second-string linebackers and the third-string defensive line on any given play in practice. Then a few plays later it might be the second-team defensive line with the starting linebackers and the third-string secondary. This approach really speaks to the old coaching adage that whenever you’re on the field, you’re technically a starter, and allows the entire defense an opportunity to develop chemistry playing with different players on the field at the same time.

• And for even more analysis of the Bucs defense throughout the first week of training camp, make sure to listen to the latest edition of the Pewter Nation Podcast – presented by Westshore Financial’s Chris Garrido – featuring Pewter Reporters Mark Cook, Trevor Sikkema, Matt Matera, Taylor Jenkins and yours truly. We talk about what’s different in Bruce Arians’ first camp in Tampa Bay and offer up our early standouts and disappointments. Don’t miss it!

Click here to listen to Episode 133: Early Standouts, Disappointments

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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]

9 COMMENTS

  1. >> One thing Bowles does that I haven’t seen any other Bucs defensive coordinator do in training camp practices is mix up his units when he substitutes. In past regimes, the second- and third-team defenses were all reserves and played together. Bowles will start out with his starting defense and then as the practice goes on, he’ll mix up the unit. <<

    This makes SO much sense to me. I haven't played football since High School, but that is exactly what my high school coach did and for years his teams were in the top 10 in the state. He would preach that, injuries happen and he couldn't afford in the game to have someone come in to replace a starter and not know how the rest of the unit was going to play. So this, along with running multiple practice sessions with extra coaching seems to me like it is going to pay dividends during the year. So much of what I hear about this coaching staff is making me very encouraged for this season … they still have to prove it on the field, but they definitely have my attention.

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  2. Its insane how young our secondary is

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  3. It’s absolutely about time that we have a D Coordinator that mixes the units. This helps tremendously come regular season if a player goes down with an injury. It’s what the Pats have known for years.

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  4. Spence and Hargreaves and Bunting and Suh and David and Edwards and David and White and Nassib and Vea and Barrett. This Defense has a good mixture of Experience and Youth and if they can come together this Defense may be a force for years to come! There’s gonna be some surprises like Spence and that’s a good thing!

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  5. If this coaching staff can rescue Jones, Spence and Hargreaves from being potential busts … that’s really going to be huge for us. That’s like getting 3 extra draft picks this year.

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  6. Absolutely. It’s encouraging to see all three performing well so far. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing them in game situations soon. It’d be a huge boost if all three can give significant contributions this year!

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  7. I thought the Defense, especially the secondary, looked pretty “mixed up” last year. LOL

    One thing I thought interesting was the DB’s practicing rushing the passer. I don’t recall ever seeing that before.

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  8. We have lot talent in secondary. Confidence is huge but have to expect them to struggle at times. If Bucs can apply consistent pressure will help to mask their lack of experience a lot. They also need to run ball this year better. Defense was on the field way too much last year.

    I like Stewart he seems like a good kid but he’s slow and unless can make transition to safety or play special teams I don’t see where he fits in. That’s great he can blitz but when he’s in coverage it’s not good. Especially matches on anyone with good speed.

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  9. Best part is that Beckner and Nelson are also showing their worth to the team. Bond and Cichy I know are capable LB’s when healthy and have upside. This is a very, very young defensive squad overall. Just needs direction and coaching.

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