FAB 2. Why Is The Bucs’ Secondary Struggling?
Bucs general manager Jason Licht believed that coaching was the problem in Tampa Bay over the last two years – not so much the talent. But he knew that the Bucs needed more talent at cornerback and spent four premium draft picks at the position, selecting M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round in 2018 and Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in the second and third rounds this past year.
Licht also bolstered the safety position by acquiring Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round of the 2018 draft and spending a third-round pick on Mike Edwards this past April. Those are six new members of the Bucs’ defensive backfield, and adding Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Whitehead in this year’s draft class prompted new head coach Bruce Arians to suggest that the secondary “was fixed.”
Things haven’t gone according to plan as the secondary has just three of the team’s five interceptions in the first five games. Tampa Bay’s pass defense ranks dead last in the league, allowing 1,618 passing yards this year – an average of 323.6 yards per game.
The Bucs are on pace to allow an embarrassing 5,177 yards this year, which would smash the NFL record for most passing yards allowed in league history, which was 4,783 yards. That broke the previous record by Greg Schiano’s Bucs surrendered 4,758 yards.
After last Sunday’s 31-24 loss at New Orleans in which the defense surrendered over 300 yards passing again and four touchdowns to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Arians called the secondary “soft.”
“That’s constructive criticism coming from B.A.,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He’s a hard-nosed coach and he expects nothing but greatness from each and every one of us. We have to take it personal, but not personally and show him what we’re all about because the word ‘soft’ should never come out of any coach’s mouth. That’s not going to define this DB group. We are for sure going to change things and go in the right direction.”
So what’s wrong with the Bucs’ secondary, and how did Tampa Bay’s pass defense start the season off so poorly? Let’s take a look.
VH3 Hasn’t Lived Up To First-Round Billing
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III has shown some improvement this season over years past, as he’s more comfortable playing in a press-man coverage scheme that better suits his talent. Yet Hargeaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, and unfortunately he’s shown so far that’s he not the elite talent the Bucs hoped they were getting.
Hargreaves made his 30th career start for the Bucs last Sunday in New Orleans, and got beat like a drum several times by Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas. Hargreaves is supposed to be a shutdown CB1 in Tampa Bay, but just hasn’t developed into that caliber of player. Part of what has stunted his development was struggling to learn how to play off coverage in Mike Smith’s defense.
The problem the Bucs have with Hargreaves is that the team picked up his fifth-year option for 2020 worth $9 million, but it’s not guaranteed unless he’s injured and can’t play. That means Tampa Bay could part ways with him without any salary cap ramifications. They’ll probably decide to pull the plug on Hargreaves next year unless he really turns his play around and proves he can play like a shutdown cover corner. So far he’s not showing that he’s worth $9 million next year.
No Starting Nickel CB – Yet
The Bucs have spent six draft picks on cornerbacks since 2016 and four of those picks have come over the last two years with Davis, Stewart, Murphy-Bunting and Dean. Davis and Dean are outside cornerbacks because of their length, and the hope was that Stewart or Murphy-Bunting could develop in the slot as nickel cornerbacks. So far, the Bucs don’t have a clear-cut guy that can handle the slot role on a full-time basis.
Stewart started five games last year on defense, but lined up at nickel for a total of 11 games. He’s seen action at nickel in all five games this year too, but while Stewart is physical, he just doesn’t have the speed or the quickness to cover faster, more agile receivers in the slot and often trails in coverage after five to 10 yards. That led to the Bucs playing more of Murphy-Bunting, who is much faster, in the slot on Sunday and New Orleans, but with mixed results.
While Murphy-Bunting recorded his first career interception against the Saints, he was also soft in coverage and needs to play more physical. Part of that is being a rookie and seeing his first meaningful playing time on defense, but at the same time, Hargreaves had a soft game in New Orleans too, which shows that a rookie or a veteran can play soft, unfortunately. If the Bucs could combine Stewart and Murphy-Bunting into one player Tampa Bay would probably have one heck of a young nickel cornerback.
No Evans At FS
The Bucs were hoping that veteran free safety Justin Evans would be available to start for a third straight season in the secondary, but that hasn’t been the case. A toe injury bothered Evans last year, and that, combined with some flaws in Mike Smith’s soft pass defense, limited his 2018 production before being placed on injured reserve in November. In last year’s 48-40 upset of the Saints in New Orleans, Evans had a key scoop-and-score in the first half. The Bucs secondary is missing his playmaking ability and experience.
Evans missed the entire offseason program, training camp and the preseason due to an Achilles injury, for which he just had surgery. The Bucs placed him on injured reserve in early September after his heel injury was slow to recover, which ultimately prompted the surgery. As a result, the Bucs have been forced to play Edwards, the team’s third-round pick, who missed three preseason games due to a hamstring injury, and has looked lost at times in the secondary.
There was an outside chance of possibly having Evans back around midseason after his Achilles surgery had it been done earlier. But now the Bucs will have to play Edwards in a trial-by-fire situation during his rookie season and hope he can develop on the fly – and stay healthy. Veteran Darian Stewart, who is Edwards’ backup, has lost a step and lacks Edwards’ speed and athleticism. The only player playing well in the secondary on a consistent basis may be strong safety Jordan Whitehead, but Edwards needs to step up and match his play. Or perhaps it’s time to give Andrew Adams, who had four interceptions last year, a look.
Dean Has Been Hurt
Dean, a third-round pick, had a promising preseason where he provided good coverage and tied for the team lead with two pass breakups and registered an interception. Dean even outplayed Murphy-Bunting, the team’s second-round pick, in August.
A lower leg injury on special teams in a Week 2 win at Carolina forced him to miss the last three games, although he returned to practice last week. Dean could see time on defense against the Panthers in London on Sunday as the Bucs look for better play from their defensive backs, especially the cornerbacks.
Dean has great size at 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, and is a carbon copy of Davis – only faster. Despite two surgically repaired knees, Dean ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash, compared to Davis’ 4.53 time. Dean and Davis played together at Auburn and could be the Bucs’ starting cornerback duo later this season and beyond if Dean can stay healthy and continue to develop. He’s Tampa Bay’s most physically gifted cornerback.
No INTs From Davis
Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians has called Carlton Davis, last year’s second-round pick, the team’s top cover corner and he’s right. Davis does a decent job in coverage, using his long arms, 6-foot-1 frame, and physical nature to his advantage. The only thing he lacks is ideal speed, as he runs a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, and hands.
Davis played in 13 games as a rookie with 12 starts, and has started all five games this year. Yet in 17 games, Davis has yet to record an interception and has just six passes defensed, including two this year. Unfortunately, he’s just not a natural ballhawk by any means. At least he hasn’t shown it yet in any game – preseason or regular season.
The hope is that Davis can develop his ball skills like former Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly did back in the late 1990s. Kelly had just three interceptions in his first four years, and never any more than one in a season before erupting for an NFL-high eight in 2002 while playing opposite Ronde Barber. In a secondary that is desperate for playmakers, the sooner Davis can pick off some passes, the better.