SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. CONTE GOES FROM ZERO TO HERO FOR BUCS
Buccaneers safety Chris Conte has gotten picked on an awful lot.
Arizona picked on him in man coverage as receiver Jaron Brown beat him and scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass in a humbling 40-7 defeat in Week 2.
Denver picked on Conte with receiver Jordan Taylor, who was interfered with in the end zone to set up a first-and-goal at the 1 on the Broncos’ second touchdown drive.
Oakland picked on him in man coverage as receiver Amari Cooper beat Conte for a 34-yard touchdown in a 30-24 overtime loss in Week 8.
Kansas City tried to pick on the aggressive Bucs safety, who earlier in the year, was too quick to bite on play-action fakes. Chiefs head coach and offensive play-caller Andy Reid knew Conte’s tendency to read run, especially near the goal line, and come up towards the line of scrimmage leaving a vacancy in the back of the end zone.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith faked the handoff and immediately launched a pass to an area where Conte was supposed to vacate – although he didn’t.
“It’s a predetermined throw,” Reid said. “Yeah, 23 didn’t bite on it. He’s not supposed to do anything, but he has been biting on that, and he didn’t do that. Lousy call.”
Conte didn’t bite on play-action and instead intercepted Smith’s pass for Chris Conley in the end zone and returned it 53 yards to the 50-yard line. Instead of Kansas City taking a 13-12 lead or perhaps a 17-12 lead in the fourth quarter, Conte’s interception set up Tampa Bay’s only touchdown of the day as the Bucs scored a huge, 19-17 upset on the road at Arrowhead Stadium.
Conte got picked on once again, but this time, it was the 6-foot-2, 203-pound safety that did the picking.
“We had a play called based off of what we’ve seen on film this week,” Conley said. “The guy made an exceptional play. He was able to sniff it out, read it and get back into the passing lane before the ball could get there. Kudos to him on the play.”
Conte reacted to Reid’s post-game displeasure over his game-changing interception.
“I think [Reid] was a little upset at how the game went in that situation,” Conte said. “It’s obviously a play they thought they had, and a play we knew because of the defense we run that we thought we could get. It’s something that we practiced for, and part of the learning process of a new system is learning what routes are going to affect you and what routes you’re going to get and how to defend them. It’s just been a process throughout the weeks and we’re trying to be better every week.
“It seemed from the start that he was going there no matter what. After the play-action fake he didn’t look. He just threw it. Luckily it went in my favor and hopefully things continue to go that way.”
Conte’s interception in Kansas City, which came on the heels of a 20-yard pick-six against Chicago a week earlier, might be the play of the year thus far outside of Jameis Winston’s 39-yard pass to Mike Evans against the Bears and Roberto Aguayo’s game-winning field goal against Carolina on Monday Night Football.
“Chris has I think played two really good games, back-to-back,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. “The red zone play I think, without a doubt, we have to say that was the game-changing play of the football game. He read his keys and his eyes were where they were supposed to be and I really think that the quarterback didn’t expect him to be there.”
When Conte came to the sidelines he celebrated with head coach Dirk Koetter more gently than the week before when he head-butted Koetter after his pick-six in Chicago – with his helmet on. Koetter was left bloodied with a cut on his right brow after the head butt.
“Great for him, we just got a nice hug this time,” Koetter said. “That was a big play because that would have been, they were in automatic field goal range and then the decision to bring it out and take that thing as far as he did, that was probably the biggest single play of the game.”
It’s nice to see Conte, who has been picked on for years, be the bully for a change.
Chicago fans picked on him during his four years with the Bears.
Bucs fans have picked on Conte since his arrival in 2015, hearing about his reputation through Bears fans on social media from his days in Chicago and falsely thinking he’s Sabby Piscitelli reincarnated just because he’s a tall, athletic, white safety that has given up some touchdown passes.
Conte understands the anger from Bucs fans earlier in the year when he was giving up too many plays.
“It takes time for everyone to get used to a new scheme and new coaches,” Conte said. “I think that’s shown over the year with our communication and how that’s needed to improve. We’re just trying to get everyone on the same page and that takes time – new players, new coaches, new everything. It takes time and it’s a work in progress. We’re continuing to try to work on that.
“I’m just trying to do my job and be in the right place and do what the coaches are trying to tell me to do. Staying patient with a rough start to the year. I don’t think I was playing the way I wanted to play and the way I know I could play. To be able to help my team, that’s all I have been wanting to do, and trying to do. To get the opportunity to do that means a lot. Hopefully I can continue to do it and do everything I can to keep it going. A focus for me – and a lot of the reason why I struggled early on – was trying to do too much. I got with the coaches and just knowing my job and doing my job and what I can do was the big thing. It’s not about going out and making big plays, it’s about letting plays come to me and not forcing things. That’s been a big focus for me – just doing my job. If I do that I’ll continue to help the team a lot more than trying to do too much.”
Keep in mind that Conte has only played in one system – Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 – for the first five years of his NFL career. Mike Smith’s multiple scheme has taken some time to learn. Not just for Conte, but the entire defense.
Now the plays are coming Conte’s way and he’s making the most of his opportunities. Look no further than his pick-six against his former team, which gave Tampa Bay an early 7-0 lead en route to a 36-7 win over Chicago.
After the game, Conte got a game ball and had some parting shots against the Bears and their fans.
“I hate to make it personal, but for me it’s personal,” Conte said. “It feels great. I don’t want to say, ‘F– you, Chicago. But I want to say, F–you, Chicago.’”
Chicago fans had bullied Conte for far too long, and his interception return for a touchdown was the ultimate payback for a painful start to his NFL career.
“It’s a game that I really dreamed about since I left there,” Conte said. “It’s something I’ve thought about every day since I left. All the death threats, all the negativity everything I’ve had thrown my way when I was there and since I’ve left, it felt good. It’s something where I can close that chapter of my life and just put an exclamation on it. Not that I came out on top, but that I can put it in the past now and forget about it and not think about Chicago anymore.”
Conte never won over Bears fans, and admits he still has some work to do with Bucs fans that have seen him as a pariah of sorts in a secondary that has given up far too many yards, far too many plays and far too many touchdowns over the past two years. Game-changing interceptions in back-to-back games certainly helps Conte’s reputation, which followed him from Chicago to Tampa Bay when he signed on to play for his former head coach Lovie Smith in 2015.
“It followed me for sure – and just the dynamics of Tampa,” Conte said. “You have a lot of people from up north down here – probably a lot of people from Chicago that now live in Tampa that are converting to being Bucs fans now. There was a lot of negativity that followed me. It was a great fresh start for me to come here and kind of reinvent myself and be a part of a new team, a new organization and a new fan base. But yes, there is some negativity that traveled down here with me.
“A lot of people that watch football know the kind of player I am. I’m not going to say lazy, but there are some fans that are not going to do their homework and are going to go off of what is said up in Chicago, or on a news channel, or a tweet and they are going to take that verbatim and take it to heart. That’s not always the case. It’s kind of human nature and the way things are. Hopefully with my play moving forward, I will have people be more on my side and look at me through a different lens.”
In the span of two weeks it’s hard to deny that Conte’s perception among fans has gone from zero to hero.
“At the end of the day I could care less about what people think of me,” Conte said. “I just want to help my team win and reach my goals as a player. Whatever struggles I have to go through along the way build character and hopefully make me a stronger person. They are all life lessons, but it’s really just about my team and accomplishing what I want to do in my career.”
Of course Conte would rather hear applause from fans rather than boos. He’s human and that’s just human nature.
“One hundred percent – yeah,” Conte said. “We would rather be cheered than booed. It’s a lot easier to show up on Sunday when people are screaming and yelling your name in a good way, not giving you ‘F– yous’ and telling you to retire and all sorts of [expletive]. When things are positive, it’s good, but you have to stay true to yourself and continue to believe in yourself. I think going through all that builds a deeper sense of relying on yourself and the people that really matter.”
Tampa Bay cornerback Alterraun Verner, who has known him from their time together living and playing football in their youth in the state of California, sees Conte turning the corner and winning over Bucs fans.
“Anytime you get ridiculed or get talked about negatively from a media standpoint or from outside influences … with a person like Chris, he wants to please everybody,” Verner said. “He wants to do the best he can and he wants to make everyone happy. So once you hear some of that stuff it probably does bother him. It’s always tough when that happens. But these last two games when you see him make great plays to help us win games it’s been great for him. There have been a lot of smiles, so it’s been good. I always like it when someone can turn their fortune around, and he’ll probably have people start cheering for him now.”
Conte had 79 tackles, six pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last year for the Bucs and signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the team this offseason, which means he’ll be an unrestricted free agent again in 2017. This year, Conte has 58 tackles, four pass breakups, a fumble recovery and those two monumental interceptions. Are Conte’s back-to-back interceptions a mere blimp on the radar, or proof of greater things in store for a safety that is gaining a better understanding of Smith’s scheme and his role in it?
Conte has six more games to make general manager Jason Licht a believer and win over more Bucs fans.
“There’s a lot of work to be done and we’ve got a lot of games left,” Conte said. “We’ve got a lot of tough opponents ahead. My focus isn’t on [my contract]. It’s on improving each week and getting better. All of that other stuff will take care of itself.
“I would love to be here. I would love to make Tampa my home and play here as long as I can. I’m not thinking about any other team or any other place. With a one-year deal you’ve got to prove it to your team that you’re worth it.”
Koetter is pleased with Conte’s progress and thinks his recent play is a sign of things to come.
“He’s being asked to do a lot more,” Koetter said. “He’s being asked to, in the two-deep scheme – and we weren’t in two-deep every play, sometimes people make it seem like we were in two-deep every play, we weren’t. But, we’re not in two-deep hardly at all right now and in the quarters scheme and in the three-deep scheme, those down safeties, they’ve got to make tackles. And it’s physical, you’re playing against 230-pound running backs with a full head of steam when they get to you as a safety. So, Chris tackled a lot better [in Kansas City], he did make the single biggest play of the game on that interception. That was a play that we’ve been burned on more the once – the hard run fake, the little glancing post in behind the safety. And I think Gerald [McCoy] got a finger on it, it was a nice catch by Chris and then a quick transition. Got two really nice blocks, Kwon [Alexander] got out in front as did Will Gholston. That was a minimum 10, maybe 14-point turnaround right there.”
That’s not the only turnaround. His pick-six against Chicago and his 53-yard interception return against Kansas City are turning around people’s perception of Conte.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org