You could see the defiance in the young cornerback’s face as he shifted in his seat before responding to the question. After all, his unit had been ranked dead last among all 32 secondaries in the NFL by the league’s own website before the 2020 season began. That disrespect hadn’t sat well with a soul in the Bucs defensive backfield – and it hadn’t started sitting any better on the way to the Super Bowl.
Now, here they were, 60 minutes from the greatest accomplishment of their careers, riding a 7-game winning streak, having just dispatched two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever crouch under center, and third-year cornerback Carlton Davis was answering the same questions. Questions about being the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense entering the season.
“Just imagine you coming to work every day, doing your job, and not only you’re not getting credit, but people are saying you’re not doing your job,” Davis said, his voice dripping with a weary frustration. “People just aren’t realizing what you’re doing. It’s frustrating. Not just for me, but for all of my guys. That’s definitely something that we carry on our shoulder.
“We’ll continue to carry it, not just until we get our respect, but until we’re done playing. Because it’s something that you never forget. It’s something that’s always on my mind. To be slept on is one of the worst feelings ever. So that’s definitely our driving force. Like in the video I said, ‘Look at where we [are] at now.’ And we’re not going to stop. This is only more motivation. More motivation to keep going. More motivation to block out the noise.”
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Davis isn’t alone in the way he feels. Other members of Tampa Bay’s secondary have expressed their disdain for NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund’s 2020 last place preseason ranking of the group. But instead of sulking, the group came together for a season to remember, right down to their final performance – an epic shutdown of the greatest quarterback in football in Patrick Mahomes.
But now the 2020 season is over, and a new campaign is about to begin. So the page has been turned, right? Well, not so fast. The Bucs secondary is on longer thought of as the 32nd-best group in the league. Those days are over for good. In fact, the consensus seems to be that the Bucs defense can be a top-five ranked unit in the NFL. That’s high praise for a unit that endured plenty of ups and downs in 2020 – but was lights out in the playoffs.
However, if the defense fails to live up to expectations, the blame will most likely be placed on Tampa Bay’s defensive backfield. Calling them the weak link is too strong. The group has played far too well to deserve that.
But biggest question mark? That still seems fair. After all, the bar is pretty high. You know what you’re getting from the Bucs defensive line, and Lavonte David is one of the surest bets in the league week-to-week. Even if Devin White is somewhat unpredictable still, the last six games of the 2020 season appeared to have him on a dominant trajectory.
In some ways, the same could be said for the Bucs secondary. I’m not sure a team has ever won a Super Bowl with their top six defensive backs playing on rookie contracts. Their performance in the Super Bowl against a juggernaut Chiefs offense was special. We’ve never seen Mahomes look so vulnerable, but the Bucs upstart secondary made him look human. And that might just be the beginning. Tampa Bay believes their collection of drafted talent in the secondary is special, and by the end of last season, it sure looked like they were right.
Bucs CB Carlton Davis III – Photo by: USA Today
Davis found his ball skills and shutdown ability with four picks in 2020. Yes, he had some rough games, but he was arguably the team’s most valuable defensive player last year. One of the hardest jobs on a football field is matching up with No. 1 receivers each week, and Davis performed admirably on that stage.
Life won’t get easier for Davis in Week 1, as he’ll likely see a healthy dose of Amari Cooper. If there is a receiver type that Davis has struggled with, it’s the shiftier route runners like Cooper. We’ll see how often Tampa Bay decides to man up in coverage, but when they do, Davis will shoulder great responsibility yet again. If he wants to build on last season, the opportunity begins Thursday night.
“I’m just going to keep being me,” Davis said. “Keep locking it down. Keep doing what I do. Unfortunately, I can’t control what the media want to promote or who they like. If you take the numbers, if you take the stats, take the film? I’m second to none. Second to none.”
Sean Murphy-Bunting struggled through an injury-laden 2020, not playing up to his potential. But the third-year cornerback never lacked confidence, and it paid off in the playoffs. Murphy-Bunting collected three interceptions and made numerous impactful plays as the team surged to a world championship.
Is that the player we see this season? Or is it the one who struggled with press technique and looked out of place in the slot? So much rides on Murphy-Bunting’s development this season. If he’s a strong No. 2 cornerback, the Bucs are going to be a hard team to beat. We’ll find out a lot right away, as Murphy-Bunting should be poised to matchup with budding star CeeDee Lamb on Thursday night.
Jamel Dean was a rollercoaster in 2020, but has improved his film study habits this offseason. He’ll match up against big play threat Michael Gallup on the outside Thursday night. Antoine Winfield Jr. was rock solid in 2020, but he’ll be asked to make more plays on the ball this season. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has impressed upon Winfield to take more calculated risks, something fellow starting safety Mike Edwards has already figured out.
Bucs S Mike Edwards – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs will need both Winfield and Edwards to be on their ‘A’ game Thursday night. In less than five full games with Mike McCarthy last season, Dak Prescott went 15-28 on passes of 20 yards or more in the air. He was the most accurate quarterback in the league on deep balls (20+ attempts or more), and threw it downfield at a rate second only to Tom Brady. The Cowboys know their only chance at victory is to come out of the gate aggressive on offense. The Bucs safety play will go a long way toward determining if Dallas’ strategy is successful or not.
Even with Jordan Whitehead out for Week 1, the Bucs secondary has a chance to begin the season with a huge statement. Squaring off against one of the league’s top passing attacks, Tampa Bay’s defensive backs can prove, again, that they aren’t the weak link anymore. They aren’t a question mark.
If the Bucs secondary takes care of business, Tampa Bay will win on Thursday night. That reality isn’t lost on the Bucs young unit. Not for a second. This has always been a group that understood what they were capable of, even when everyone else doubted. Now it’s time to prove it to the world again.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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