FAB 2. 5 Critical Camp Questions – Bucs Defense
PewterReport.com’s 20 Critical Camp Questions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continues with a look at the team’s defense. Here are five big questions as the start of Tampa Bay’s 2018 training camp is just days away.
1. Will the Bucs blitz their linebackers more in 2018?
Yes. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith often found himself in no man’s land last year. With a front four that struggled to pressure and sack opposing quarterbacks and an inexperienced secondary that struggled in coverage, Smith was often left to figure out if his defense wanted to die a slow death on an eight-play scoring drive by simply rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, or die a quick death on a big-play strike when blitzing the QB and forcing the likes of rookie safety Justin Evans or second-year cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith to play in single man coverage. Either way, Smith’s undermanned defense was in peril and he knew it.
Often, Smith elected to rush four and drop seven and force opponents to go on longer drives with the hope that a drive-killing penalty or turnover would occur. That’s why there were fewer blitzes in 2017, and fewer sacks among the team’s linebackers as a result. In fact, there were just two sacks by linebackers last year – Adarius Taylor (formerly Glanton) and Kendell Beckwith – and none by Kwon Alexander and Lavonte, who had combined for eight sacks the year before in Smith’s first year as defensive coordinator. In fact, since Alexander and David first played together in 2015, neither has posted fewer than three sacks except for last year when neither recorded a single QB capture.
In hindsight, that was criminal, especially in a year when Tampa Bay generated just 22 sacks, which was the fewest in the league. Smith and the Bucs could have used six or seven sacks from Alexander and David, and consider last year a lesson learned. Now that Smith has legitimate pass rushers up front with Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry joining a surgically-repaired Noah Spence to provide some outside pressure while Gerald McCoy and first-round pick Vita Vea work to collapse the pocket, he may actually decide to blitz more often despite having a more capable front four.
What’s the fastest way to the quarterback: Pierre-Paul beating a left tackle off the edge in three seconds or Alexander screaming up the A gap untouched at the snap of the ball in two? Covering receivers and tight ends is half of a rodeo. While a cowboy needs to hang on to a bucking bull for at least eight seconds, NFL defensive backs need to be able to cover their man for at least four seconds. Once it gets to five seconds, even the most talented, Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback will struggle to stay with his man. An effective blitz forces a QB to get rid of the ball quicker than he would like – or take a sack.
With more dangerous pass rushers up front with the new additions, it will be harder for opposing offensive linemen to single-block all of those pass rushers and still pick up the linebackers. Sometimes the role of a blitzing linebacker is to get picked up and free up a defensive lineman or create a one-on-one pass rushing opportunity and prevent a double team. Don’t be surprised if Smith really tinkers with his blitz package in training camp, and not just with Alexander and David, but also with strong Chris Conte and cornerbacks like Hargreaves and Brent Grimes, who could see a few plays in nickel this year.
2. What will Beckwith’s availability be at the start of training camp?
Starting strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered in an offseason car accident and he’ll likely start on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. That injury caused him to miss the entire offseason workouts, OTAs and mandatory mini-camp. In fact, Beckwith wasn’t even seen walking the sidelines at any OTA or the mini-camp, so it’s hard to believe that he will suddenly be cleared to participate at the start of training camp after the team’s five-week hiatus.
What’s more likely is that his PUP designation will last throughout much of training camp and that he could see some action later in the offseason. That means that Adarius Taylor (formerly Glanton) will likely be the starter at SAM linebacker during training camp and in the preseason while Beckwith continues to recover. Taylor had a breakthrough year last season with a career-high 22 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery while starting in place of the injured Lavonte David. Taylor also scored his first career touchdown on special teams at Miami when he recovered a fumbled lateral in the end zone.
Beckwith played in all 16 games with nine starts as a rookie as he battled back from a torn ACL during his final year at LSU. He had starts at middle linebacker and at strongside linebacker and even took snaps at defensive end. Beckwith has a firm grasp of Mike Smith’s playbook, so the biggest thing will be making sure he’s physically ready to go by the start of the season. Perhaps the bigger question will be if the Bucs turn to Beckwith to man the SAM linebacker spot or will Taylor have gained ground on him through the summer?
3. What type of impact can we expect from Jason Pierre-Paul?
A big one. Double-digit sacks would be nice, right? It’s only been 13 years since Simeon Rice last accomplished that feat. But don’t focus on that gimmick stat. Both of last year’s Super Bowl participants – Philadelphia (38) and New England (42) – had less than 45 sacks and neither had a double-digit sacker. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham came close with 9.5, while Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers had 6.5 to lead his team.
Pierre-Paul had 8.5 last year in New York and if he could duplicate that number in Tampa Bay that would be a welcomed accomplishment. Six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has led the team over the past three years with 7.5 sacks (2015), seven sacks (2016) and six sacks (2017) and needs the help of a proven, potent edge rusher.
Pierre-Paul has two double-digit sack seasons in his eight years with the Giants, the last of which came in 2014, which was the year prior to his hand injury that involved fireworks prior to the 2015 season. Whether or not Pierre-Paul gets 10 or more sacks isn’t the issue. It’s whether the Bucs can get over 40 sacks with Pierre-Paul’s help and that’s something that hasn’t happened in Tampa Bay since 2004 when Rice was a Buccaneer. Internally and off the record, the team is optimistic that the defense can generate 50 sacks, but that only happens if Pierre-Paul hits double-digits. Don’t rule it out.
4. Will Justin Evans emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber safety?
Yes. One player that generated a lot of buzz at One Buccaneer Place this offseason was Evans, the team’s second-year free safety. Coming off a rookie season in which he posted 66 tackles, six pass breakups and three interceptions, there has been talk behind the scenes about him emerging as a potential Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back this year, as the greatest leap in improvement typically occurs between the first and second year.
Where Evans needs to improve the most isn’t necessarily making more plays, as his three interceptions were tied for the team lead despite not starting until Week 5 against New England where he picked off Tom Brady for his first career INT. Evans needs to prevent touchdowns as a free safety, a position which is often a team’s last line of defense. Evans surrendered nearly twice as many touchdowns as he recorded in interceptions, but looked more confident and comfortable in Mike Smith’s defense in the OTAs and the mini-camp, which will surely help. Evans needs to continue to improve diagnosing plays and anticipating where the ball is going and that will come with more experience.
Evans did show improvement as a tackler, which was a concern coming out of Texas A&M where he earned a reputation as a big-time hitter and someone who misses tackles. The Bucs can use more takeaways on defense and Evans has the ability to force fumbles, as he can be a violent hitter, he just has to do it after failing to record a forced fumble last year as a rookie. If last year’s second-round pick can pick off three or four passes again and force a couple of fumbles while not surrendering any touchdown passes, he will be in consideration for Pro Bowl honors by the end of the season. The kid is super-talented and I’m inclined to believe the hype.
5. What to make of the Bucs’ young cornerbacks?
At first glance, Tampa Bay’s collection of cornerbacks looks like an old man (Brent Grimes) and a bunch of kids (everybody else). Grimes has a bunch of experience and there aren’t many other cornerbacks on the Bucs roster that do. But after drafting the likes of Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart in the second round, adding developmental sleeper cornerback David Rivers in free agency and signing undrafted free agent Marko Myers, there is a noticeable influx of talent at the cornerback position.
That, combined with improvement from youngsters like Vernon Hargreaves III, Ryan Smith and Javien Elliott, who are all entering their third year in the league, makes the Bucs – and myself – feel more confident, and perhaps relieved, about the cornerback position. Last year when Grimes missed the Tampa Bay’s Week 2 match-up at Minnesota, the Bucs were torched when having to turn to Hargreaves and Smith.
Although it was only in helmets and shorts, Davis and Stewart showed tremendous confidence and immediately looked like they belong in the NFL with Davis showing star potential due to his height, wingspan and physicality. I think Davis ends up starting opposite Grimes and Hargreaves battles Stewart for the starting job in nickel defense. Whoever emerges in the slot will allow Tampa Bay to field a better starting trio than the Bucs put on the field last year. And whether it’s Rivers or Myers or an improved version of Javien Elliott, Tampa Bay will have better depth at cornerback as a result of the arrival of Davis and Stewart and the heightened amount of competition.