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Just a few months ago, the Bucs defense held Patrick Mahomes and the explosive Kansas City Chiefs to nine points and no touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Their legendary performance was even more incredible considering just one Pro Bowler, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, adorns the unit. That could change in 2021.

At the start of the 2020 season, the Bucs secondary was ranked 32nd in the league. While the Tampa Bay defensive backfield is young, several players have taken dramatic strides to improve their play. None improved more than CB Sean Murphy-Bunting during last season’s epic playoff run.

NOTE: In this article, a lower passer rating indicates better play from the cornerback. A high passer rating is bad.

From Burnt Toast to All-Pro

To say Murphy-Bunting’s season was up-and-down would be a massive understatement. His play seemed to fluctuate from week to week with little consistency. Horrific games like Week 4 against the Chargers come to mind. However, Murphy-Bunting capped off the season with a playoff run for the ages. Murphy-Bunting recorded three interceptions in three straight playoff games, the first player to do that since Hall of Famer Ed Reed.

Murphy-Bunting’s season can be split into two sections. The first from Week 1 to Week 15, then from Week 16 to Super Bowl 55. We are going to look at the turning point for Murphy-Bunting and how he improved his play.

Between Week 1 to Week 15, of corners that played more than 20 percent of defensive snaps, Murphy-Bunting was ranked as the 114th-best corner in the league by PFF. After that, Murphy-Bunting’s ranking skyrocketed to eighth. Those around him include All-Pros Jalen Ramsey and Marcus Peters, as well as Pro-Bowler Marshon Lattimore. See below for the marketed development in Murphy-Bunting’s game. In this case red grades indicate good pass coverage.


Bunting’s Overall Comparison

Man Vs Zone

Murphy-Bunting’s greatest improvement during the season was in his man coverage. Below is a table showing his performance in this category within the aforementioned time frames. Murphy-Bunting went from being one of the league’s worst to an elite man coverage corner.

Bucs-Murphy Bunting

Bunting’s Man Coverage Comparison

This coincides with a number of factors. Unknown to many fans, Murphy-Bunting was playing through several injuries early in the season.

“I was dealing with a lot of injuries throughout the year,” Murphy-Bunting said. “Whether it was my ankle, my groin or my hand. Going into the playoffs I was actually starting to feel healthy again.”

This, alongside a scheme adjustment from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, made a big difference. Bowles’ playoff coverages allowed Murphy-Bunting to be more physical with his receiver at the line of scrimmage. One of Murphy-Bunting’s biggest struggles was staying in phase with receivers from off coverage.

From Week 1-15 Bowles called Cover 5 on 21 percent of man coverage snaps. From Week 16-SB55, this increased to 58 percent. It was a significant change from Bowles’ zone-blitz tendencies, and it better suited his physical man coverage corners.

Not only did Murphy-Bunting’s man coverage improve, but so did his play in zone. Below is a breakdown of Murphy-Bunting’s zone coverage snaps. The third-year corner was much more aware of route development and route combinations after Week 15. He also improved his tackling, shown by the reduction in 1st down percentage. Murphy-Bunting was also able to quickly diagnose screens, often fighting through the blocks of wide receivers and sometimes even offensive linemen to make the tackle.

Bucs-Murphy Bunting

Bunting’s Zone Coverage Comparison

Bombs Away Bunting

One of Murphy-Bunting’s biggest struggles at the start of the year was getting beat deep. The injuries, shoddy tackling and poor technique led to several huge plays against the Bucs defense.


Depth Of Target Breakdown Week 1 – Week 15

Compare this to his play after Week 15 and the difference is astonishing, most notably in the intermediate range of the field. Murphy-Bunting went from allowing a perfect passer rating to below 50 percent completion percentage and a passer rating of 67.

Bucs-Murphy Bunting

Depth Of Target Week 16 – SB55

When healthy, Murphy-Bunting’s growth within Todd Bowles’ scheme has been noteworthy. While secondary play is one of the least stable metrics in the NFL, Murphy-Bunting shows year-by-year improvement. With Bowles staying for at least one more year, this allows Murphy-Bunting to only become more comfortable in the system. A healthy Vita Vea and young blood in rookie Joe Tryon indicate an even better and more consistent pass rush for the Bucs in 2021. That will help the Bucs secondary immensely.

As mentioned, elite corner play is some of the hardest to sustain. But if Murphy-Bunting can maintain his play from Week 16 on, he could garner Pro Bowl consideration.


It will be interesting to see Bowles’ game plans going into 2021. His typical single-high safety, zone-blitz heavy scheme places a lot of responsibility on DBs in coverage, and can often put them in difficult situations. But if the Bucs can get a consistent four-man pass rush and play two-high safety coverages, as they did in the playoffs, Murphy-Bunting could have a breakout year. The Central Michigan product has Pro Bowl-caliber talent, and the Bucs scheme may finally allow him to show it.

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About the Author: Jack Barrett

Jack Barrett is Pewter Report's newest contributor, bringing a knowledge of advanced analytics to the team. Jack prides himself on not only understanding and articulating the game from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but also providing eye-opening stats to educate fans on the intricacies of the game. Hailing from the U.K., Jack is fairly new to the NFL world. His first-ever football game was Tom Brady's miraculous comeback over the Falcons to win Super Bowl LI. From that point forward, Jack has quickly acclimated himself to the NFL game through rigorous study and viewership. Jack's other interests include soccer, which he played at a collegiate level, cooking and fashion. He’s looking forward to providing Buccaneers fans with unique content and analysis to deepen readers knowledge of the team.
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1 month ago

SMB was one of the key developments to win the super bowl. I hope he continues.
IMO the most important part for that will be Bowles playcalling. Playing two high (4 Lineman plus White and David are enough for stopping the run) and press man are key for the defense

Reply to  DerLutz
1 month ago

That and a ferocious DLine that consistently gets to the QB!

1 month ago

A healthy Vita Vea for the entire season and if first round pick Tryon can produce in pass rushing situations then the entire defensive backfield could have improved play for sure!

Captain Sly
1 month ago

Jack you’re right! Most of Buntings mistakes can be blamed on Bowles scheme. Those young CB’s were left on an island especially when Bowles would send Devin or Whitehead on a blitz that was picked up by the other team. Middle of the field was exposed a lot last year by elite play callers and QB’s. During our playoff run Bowles scaled back the blitz some allowing our LB’s to stay home in coverage more, In turn the QB’s had to pat the ball an extra beat which allowed the pressure to get to them. I really think through some… Read more »

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