FAB 2. Bucs Need More Playmakers
The Buccaneers defenders aren’t making plays on the ball this year and it’s killing them. Through the first half of the season Tampa Bay has just one interception along with five fumble recoveries. As a result, the Bucs are minus-15, which is the worst turnover margin in the league.
When Tampa Bay was on its five-game winning streak following a 3-5 start in 2016 the Bucs had a plus-nine turnover margin to help. The Bucs will need a similar turnover margin turnaround – starting Sunday against Washington – to have any chance of salvaging the 2018 season.
It’s no surprise that the Bucs have lost four of their last five games this year because the defense has failed to generate a single takeaway. Tampa Bay has gone five straight games without a single turnover. So why haven’t the Bucs forced more fumbles and picked off more passes.
Look at the 11 defenders on the field.
Who are the playmakers?
We are expecting interceptions and forced fumbles from players that don’t have a history of creating takeaways. Turns out we are expecting too much.
The three main defenders who have such a track record are linebacker Lavonte David, who has 18.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions in his Tampa Bay career; cornerback Brent Grimes, who has 33 career interceptions, including seven as a Buccaneer, with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries; and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has 66 sacks, including eight as a Buccaneer, 14 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries and two interceptions – both of which were pick-sixes.
These are the players that need to come up with more takeaways for this team – on a weekly basis.
David has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and half a sack this year. Not enough.
Pierre-Paul has forced one fumble this year. Not enough.
Grimes forced one fumble and has no interceptions. Not enough.
In nine years in the league, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has 50.5 sacks, but only six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. That’s an average of assisting with one takeaway per year.
In his seven-year career, defensive end Vinny Curry has 23.5 sacks, but just five forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander has seven sacks, six interceptions, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 46 games in his career. He had two forced fumbles this year before being placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL. The Bucs miss him in a big way.
Free safety Justin Evans had five interceptions in his last two years at Texas A&M, including four as a junior. He had three interceptions as a rookie last year, but has just one interception and a fumble recovery for a touchdown this season. Those came in the first and third game of the season. Since the Chicago game, Evans appears lost and invisible on defense, and hasn’t made any big plays or created any takeaways. That has to change.
Reserve cornerback Ryan Smith had seven interceptions at four years playing at North Carolina Central, an FCS school, but none against an FBS school. In three years in the NFL he has yet to intercept a pass, although he has forced four fumbles and recovered two fumbles, including one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this year.
The problem is that the rest of the players on defense don’t have a track record for forcing fumbles or picking off passes either in the NFL or in college.
Adarius Taylor, who is filling in for Alexander at middle linebacker, had 3.5 sacks in college and two interceptions, including a pick-six, at Florida Atlantic, but has just two sacks and a forced fumble in his four years in the NFL.
Current strongside linebacker Devante Bond had just three sacks in two years at Oklahoma and has zero splash plays or takeaways at the NFL level.
In three years in the league, defensive end Carl Nassib has 8.5 sacks and no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
In five years, mostly as a reserve in Philadelphia, nose tackle Beau Allen has two sacks and one fumble recovery.
First-round draft pick Vita Vea had 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in three years at Washington. He has zero splash plays or takeaways during his rookie season.
Cornerback Javien Elliott had one interception in his lone year seeing the field at Florida State and has yet to record a takeaway in the NFL.
Cornerback De’Vante Harris had five picks in four years at Texas A&M, but not more than two in any season. He didn’t record a forced fumble in college and hasn’t recorded a takeaway at the NFL level in three years.
Safety Isaiah Johnson had five interceptions at KU as a freshman before transferring to South Carolina where he only had two picks in his final two years. Johnson has two fumble recoveries on special teams in his two years in the league, but nothing so far on defense.
Rookie safety Jordan Whitehead had three interceptions in three years playing safety at Pittsburgh, but has yet to record a takeaway in the NFL.
Rookie cornerback Carlton Davis had three interceptions as a freshman at Auburn, but then didn’t have another one until halfway through his junior year. He has one fumble recovery this year and no interceptions.
Rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart had no interceptions in his final two years at North Carolina after getting six in his first two years. He had three forced fumbles in college, but has yet to create a takeaway at the NFL level.
The bottom line is that the Bucs haven’t been acquiring enough talented playmakers, and that falls on general manager Jason Licht. This past year he put an emphasis on acquiring tough, physical players through free agency and the draft because he thought the Bucs were getting pushed around too much on defense. He did trade for the play-making Pierre-Paul however.
That’s understandable to want to be more physical, and Tampa Bay has played better against the conventional run this year, but hasn’t fared well against the pass because the team doesn’t have enough ballhawking athletes to match-up and take the ball away. Remember, the Panthers rushed for 179 yards last week, but 65 of it came on reverses by wide receivers as Carolina attacked the Bucs’ flanks rather than the tough interior of the defensive line.
Past performance in college doesn’t always guarantee future success in the NFL, otherwise former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury and his 12,429 yards and 95 touchdowns as a three-year starter would have been a star in the NFL on his stats alone. The same could be said for Ron Dayne and Donnell Pumphrey, who are the top two rushers in NCAA history. Neither was successful in the NFL.
Chargers strong safety Derwin James, whom the Bucs strongly considered with their first-round pick, had 5.5 sacks and just three interceptions and two forced fumbles in just over two years at Florida State. He wasn’t really a ballhawk in college, but this fast, athletic defensive back made a nice impact as a rookie with 3.5 sacks and one interception thus far in San Diego.
Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson had four interceptions in three years at LSU, including just one as a junior last year, and wasn’t considered to be a ballhawk, either. Yet this fast, athletic cover corner has four picks in his first eight games in the NFL, including one to seal Carolina’s victory on Sunday.
Yet sometimes a ballhawk is a ballhawk. Legendary Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber was a three-year starter at Virginia that had 15 career interceptions, including eight as a sophomore in 1994. He didn’t test well at the NFL Scouting Combine and fell to the third round as a result.
All Barber did in 13 years in Tampa Bay was record 47 interceptions, 28 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries and score 12 touchdowns because he was a natural ballhawk. He had demonstrated a penchant for creating takeaways in college and that continued in the NFL.
You know who else had a track record for taking the ball away in college? Falcons safety Damontae Kazee, who played cornerback at San Diego State. The Bucs brought him in for a visit last year, yet didn’t draft him (against our wishes). Kazee was similarly built like Ronde Barber – 5-11, 180 pounds – and was a turnover machine for the Aztecs, recording 17 interceptions and six forced fumbles (15 of those interceptions came in the last two years, three in one game). Despite his size, Kazee was a physical outside cornerback who took pride in his tackling skills, both in the open field and when laying bigger hits. Heck, he’s playing safety now for the Falcons.
Kazee, who was featured in a PewterReport.com Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, ran a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash and that caused him to slip to the fifth round last year. Kazee was a reserve defensive back last year and had 23 tackles and forced three fumbles as a rookie. This year, with starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen out for the season, Kazee has stepped into the starting role and has 43 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble.
The reason why this reserve has been a ballhawk this year in Atlanta is because he always has been a ballhawk. The Bucs should have drafted him.
Over a decade ago, Derrick Johnson was an All-American linebacker at Texas and was one of the best at creating takeaways. The future first-round pick had 11 forced fumbles, including an NCAA-record nine as a senior, along with 10.5 career sacks, nine career interceptions and five fumble recoveries. So it should come as no surprise that Johnson would record 27.5 sacks, 23 forced fumbles, 14 interceptions and three fumble recoveries in his 14-year NFL career as a four-time Pro Bowler. He was a ballhawk in college and a ballhawk in the NFL.
Players like Barber, Johnson and Kazee were ball magnets in college and that penchant for creating takeaways is something Licht needs to be scouring free agency and the draft for in the offseason if he’s still calling the shots. Tampa Bay’s turnover margin can greatly improve next year with an influx of ballhawks in the offseason.
Given the team’s lack of takeaways this year on defense, I asked Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter if the defense was actually picking off passes in practice.
“Yeah, Brent Grimes I think had two interceptions in practice last week,” Koetter said. “I think they’ve been making a conscious effort to do that, but we’ve got to do it in a game.”
It was pretty telling that Grimes’ name was the only one that was mentioned.