Mark Barron is struggling in coverage. This should be no surprise, and it really is pretty standard for any rookie safety, but it is one factor in the Bucs' awful secondary that has gone unremarked. Whereas we frequently blame cornerbacks who really shouldn't be on the field, the fact remains that Barron's struggles have limited the defense in its versatility.
Early in the season, Barron looked like a stud. Through six games, he averaged seven tackles and one pass defensed per game. Since then, he's managed just four tackles per game and just two pass defenses in eight games. I don't generally like using tackle totals to evaluate a player, but in this case they concur with the picture we see on the field: a player who appears to have hit the rookie wall, for whom the game appears to be moving just a little bit too fast.
The same thing happened to Eric Berry and Earl Thomas in their rookie seasons, so this is hardly irregular, but it is a problem right now. Barron hasn't exactly blown many coverages, but he hasn't made the impact he made earlier in the season. He was drafted by the Bucs not just because he was a force against the run, where he hasn't been excelling either in recent games, but he was also drafted because he could play man coverage against versatile tight ends.
That's exactly what he'll be asked to do tomorrow against the New Orleans Saints, facing one of the best tight ends in the NFL: Jimmy Graham. Whether the Bucs will actually use Barron to cover Graham remains to be seen -- they have generally shied away from using him in that fashion in recent weeks -- but there's no doubt that the Saints will try to target Barron in coverage.
Whereas Graham presents one problem, Drew Brees presents a different one entirely. He's an expert at moving safeties with his eyes, and exploiting that movement. Barron will have to be disciplined to refrain from getting burned deep by Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Overall, this may be his toughest test yet, and I'm not that confident that he will pass it.
This doesn't mean that Barron will be a problem in the future, or that he's a bust. He should be fine in the long room, as he's a hard worker who has all the physical traits to succeed. He's just struggling in the NFL as a rookie, and that's a common occurrence. We likely won't see the real Mark Barron until his second or third season -- but when we do, he should be a true impact player.