Welcome to The Hook, my weekly column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday, as well as some of my thoughts on the Bucs and the NFL at the end in a section called Cannon Blast.
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Over the last six weeks of the 2019 season, the Buccaneers defense was one of the best in the league. Not in Tampa Bay’s division, or in the conference – but one of the best in the entire NFL.
The Bucs run defense was great from the start off the season, and Tampa Bay ended up leading the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (73.8 avg.).
But the pass defense?
It was certainly a tale of two halves.
Early in the season the secondary was torched and burned by some of the NFL’s greatest QBs.
San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.
New York Giants rookie Daniel Jones.
Carolina’s backup Kyle Allen.
New Orleans’ backup Teddy Bridgewater.
You know … those gun-slinging future Hall of Famers.
I kid, of course.
Tampa Bay’s young secondary gave up 300-yard passing games aplenty in the first half of the season. But things began to come together as the season went on.
I won’t pin all the blame on former first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. But things definitely began to get better after he was released following the Cardinals game in November. All of sudden for cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, the light bulb seems to come on. Davis was second in the NFL with 19 pass breakups. Dean was tied for fourth with 17. Murphy-Bunting contributed eight and led the Bucs with three interceptions, including a key pick-six in a win against Detroit.
That’s 44 pass breakups from Tampa Bay’s three top cornerbacks. And the Bucs secondary only surrendered two 300-yard passers over the second half of the season – Arizona rookie Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
The next step to improvement will be converting those into turnovers. Despite being in the top five in pass breakups, Davis only had one interception, while Dean collected two. League leader Stephon Gilmore led the league with 20 pass breakups and also had six interceptions. That was the total amount of the INTs by Murphy-Bunting (three), Dean (two) and Davis (one) last year.
The Bucs will need more turnovers to truly have a dominant defense, and turning pass breakups into interception will be a high priority in 2020. Tampa Bay had 96 passes defensed as a team last year, but just 12 interceptions.
The problem with that could be the increased level of competition that the Bucs secondary will face this season. Tampa Bay will play against at least five quarterbacks – Ryan, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford – who will likely one day wear the yellow mustard-colored jackets of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And the Bucs will face Brees and Ryan twice in the NFC South.
Let’s take a look at the Bucs opponents at quarterback that Tampa Bay’s young cornerbacks and safeties will face in 2020.
Weeks 1 & 9: New Orleans QB Drew Brees
Brees has been a Bucs killer over his career. The veteran has given the Bucs fits for years and will be under center for one more season in New Orleans. Tampa Bay will travel to New Orleans to open the 2020 season, a less than ideal situation considering there will be no preseason games at all leading up to the season opener. Last November Brees was 28-of-35 for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the Saints’ win over the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
Weeks 2 & 10: Carolina QB Teddy Bridgewater
In New Orleans last year, Bridgewater went 5-0 while filling in for Brees, who was recovering from a broken thumb, including beating the Buccaneers, 31-24, at New Orleans. Bridgwater was 26-of-34 for 314 yards and four touchdowns, but did throw one interception, the first of Murphy-Bunting’s career. It was Bridgewater’s best game of 2019 and one of the best of his career. However, now at the helm in Carolina, with a new coach and new system, the Buccaneers should go into their Week 2 match-up with confidence.
Advantage: Bucs secondary
Week 3: Denver QB Drew Lock
Tampa Bay will travel to Denver early in the season to face an inexperienced starter in Lock. While starting just five games in 2019 as a rookie, Lock did throw for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns, and just three interceptions, going 4-1 in those five starts for Denver. A road trip to the “Mile High City” will be tough but the Bucs secondary should be up for the test.
Advantage: Bucs secondary
Week 4: Los Angeles Chargers QBs Tyrod Taylor/Justin Herbert
Tampa Bay welcomes the Chargers to Raymond James Stadium in Week 4, and who will be the Chargers’ starter could be up in the air. Taylor will go into camp as the starter but keeping the job is another thing. The Chargers didn’t draft Herbert to be a backup, so if Taylor struggles, even early in the season, look for the Chargers to make a switch. Taylor can be a danger with his feet and has a cannon for an arm, but has never found a home in the NFL for very long. Tampa Bay’s young secondary should be wary of Taylor under center, as he does have excellent weapons at receiver with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and at running back with Austin Ekeler. Taylor historically doesn’t throw many interceptions, and beat the Bucs as quarterback of the Bills in 2017 – although none of the current Bucs corners were in the NFL.
Week 5: Chicago QBs Nick Foles/Mitch Trubisky
This will be a camp battle to watch in Chicago as Matt Nagy is under pressure to get the Bears offense back on track after a subpar 2019 season. Trubisky looked to be worthy of the Bears moving up in the first round to draft him in 2017 early in his career, but last year, fans in Chicago were ready to toss him in Lake Michigan after a mediocre season with 3,138 yards with just 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on his way to a playoff-less, 8-8 season. Foles was a Super Bowl hero for the Eagles after the 2017 season and turned that into an $88 million deal with the Jaguars prior to 2019. Foles was a failure in Jacksonville and was traded to the Bears this offseason for a fourth-round pick.
Advantage: Bucs secondary
Week 6: Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers
The Packers are still one of the NFC’s most dangerous teams, and Rodgers is the catalyst that makes them go. With over 46,000 career passing yards, there has been little to think Rodgers game is slowing down. Without a ton of weapons, Rodgers still threw for 4,002 yards with 26 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2019, leading the Packers to a 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC Championship Game. Playing Green Bay at home helps, but it still will be a tough match-up for the Bucs’ young corners.
Week 7: Las Vegas QB Derek Carr
Carr quietly had a very good season for the Raiders in 2019 with 4,054 yards passing, 21 touchdowns, only eight interceptions and a 100.8 QB rating. And of all the 4,000-plus passers in the NFL in 2019, Carr may have had the fewest weapons to throw to. Las Vegas added talented rookie receiver in the speedy Henry Ruggs III in the draft this year, and that should help Carr improve over his already very good 2019 numbers. Carr doesn’t take many chances and has never thrown more than 13 interceptions in a season.
Week 8: New York Giants QB Daniel Jones
Jones got his first NFL start last season against the Buccaneers and finished that game looking like an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate with 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. That performance, combined with a missed Matt Gay field goal that would have won it for Tampa Bay, gave the Giants a 32-31, come-from-behind win. Jones was solid the rest of the year, including putting up 354 yards against the Redskins later in the season, and finishing with 3,023 yards and a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio. But this won’t be the same Bucs secondary Jones faced early in 2019, and there will be a touch of revenge on Tampa Bay’s defense on Monday Night Football after the 2019 embarrassing and costly loss.
Advantage: Bucs secondary
Week 11: Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff
Goff fell back to Earth slightly after a magical 2018 season that saw Los Angeles reach the Super Bowl before losing to the Patriots and Tom Brady. While Goff threw for nearly the same yards in 2019 (4,638) as he did in 2018 (4,688), his touchdowns dropped from 32 to 22 and his interceptions went up from 12 to 16. Still, he was dangerous, as the Bucs found out at the L.A. Coliseum last October when Goff torched the secondary for 517 yards in a 55-40 Bucs win. Yet the Tampa Bay defense got the last laugh, picking off Goff three times and holding him to just two touchdown passes. The fact that this game is at home on Monday Night Football should make this rematch quite interesting.
Advantage: Bucs secondary
Week 12: Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes
The Bucs have never faced the 2018 NFL MVP and the 2019 Super Bowl winner, but will have a chance to see the uber-talented Chiefs signal caller in person this year. Mahomes can do it all – from using his feet to scramble to throwing the most unorthodox passes for completions you will ever see. Besides the physical talent, Mahomes, who has thrown for 76 touchdowns and just 18 interceptions over the last two years, is mentally one of the sharpest quarterbacks in the league and will present numerous problems for Tampa Bay’s secondary.
Week 13: Bye Week
Advantage: Bucs secondary (just checking to see if you are still with me)
Week 14: Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins
Kirk “You Like That” Cousins is as far from Mahomes as anyone can be from a raw, physical standpoint anyway. Yet all he does is win football games, including helping Lovie Smith be shown the door following the 2015 season after Cousins led the Redskins to a second half comeback over the Bucs. It was the beginning of the downfall for Smith and his staff. Cousins has led the Vikings to back-to-back playoff seasons in his two season in Minnesota and threw for a respectable 3,606 yards with 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season.
Weeks 15 & 17: Atlanta QB Matt Ryan
The Bucs split the series with the Falcons in 2019, although had Gay made one of his three missed field goals in the season finale, Tampa Bay would have sweep Atlanta, Winston might still be the Bucs quarterback and Dan Quinn would likely be coaching defense for a college football team this year. But that didn’t happen, and Ryan and the Bucs will face off twice in the last three weeks of the 2020 season. While the Tampa Bay secondary was playing better towards the end off the year, the crafty veteran Ryan still threw for 313 yards in the season finale against the Bucs. In two games versus the Bucs last year, Ryan threw just one touchdown pass and one interception. Tampa Bay’s secondary will have its hands full with Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but Ryan doesn’t like pressure, and if the Bucs can get him to the ground a number of times the Falcons offense can be held in check.
Week 16: Detroit QB Matt Stafford
Stafford missed the Bucs’ game late last year with an injury, and Tampa Bay took advantage of the Lions’ lack of depth at quarterback, winning on the road last December in Detroit. Stafford played just eight games in 2019, but was on pace to throw for 5,000 yards and close to 40 touchdowns (2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns) before being shut down with a back injury. Stafford has thrown for over 41,000 yards in his career and is one of the league’s best QBs when healthy.
As you can see, the road to success for the Bucs’ won’t be easy based on the quarterbacks that Tampa Bay will face in 2020. Of course the pressure generated from the team’s front seven will go a long way in determining how successful the Bucs defense can be. Without pressure upfront, it doesn’t matter if Tampa Bay had four Deion Sanders in the secondary – eventually receivers will get open.
While the young secondary will be tested weekly, we can’t forget that Tampa Bay’s opponents’ defenses and secondaries will be facing the best quarterback of all time in Tom Brady, who won’t put the Bucs defense in as many tough situations as Winston did with his league-high 30 interceptions in 2019.
Cook’s musings and ramblings about the Buccaneers and the NFL. Good stuff. Check it out.
• As I wrote about above, the Bucs will be facing a ton of good quarterbacks in 2020. And not just good football players, but some good looking guys as well. And can we all agree Jared Goff is one tall, cool glass of water?
I mean L.A. is perfect for him. He has that Hollywood leading-man look going for him, he’s a starting NFL quarterback and a multi-millionaire. What did he do in a prior life to get so lucky? And with that said, has anyone seen Goff and actor Ryan Gosling in the same room together? They are almost identical twins!
Perhaps they are the same person in some alternative Hollywood/NFL parallel universe. Hey it’s 2020 – nothing would really surprise me at this point.
• Who will lead the Bucs in interceptions this season? Last year, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean were the top two defenders in terms of pass breakups with 19 and 17, respectively. Yet Davis managed only one pick and Dean had two. Instead, nickel corner Sean Murphy-Bunting led the entire Bucs defense with three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown in front of his home town at Detroit last year.
Davis at times was allergic to catching the football. I am guessing when he and defensive backs coach Kevin Ross reviewed the film they were sick to their stomach at the number of balls that could have been intercepted by Davis. Expect that to be a big emphasis this training camp for Tampa Bay’s top cornerback.
I am going with Davis being the top Tampa Bay defender in terms of interceptions in 2020. Who do you have Bucs fans?
• Speaking of Davis, head coach Bruce Arians said the former Auburn standout is already an elite corner.
“I think Carlton made that move last November,” Arians said. “What he did to DeAndre Hopkins was outstanding, he basically just shut him out the game, and that’s not an easy job. He did a really good job on Julio [Jones], he realized Julio’s a little stronger. The penalties are gone, he’s one of the top 10 guys in my opinion right now.”
One last thing on the Jared Goff and Ryan Gosling reference from above. For fans of the movie Remember the Titans, we can all agree on this!