Well, kids, we are two months away from the start of training camp, so football is not that far away. Nonetheless, it's never too early to start looking at some key positional battles that should take place at camp this season.
First and arguably foremost, it goes without saying that the strong safety position was a position of moderate to substantial weakness for this Buccaneer team last season. Missed tackles, poor angles taken to the ballcarrier in run support and to the receiver in coverage. 8 yard runs going for 35. Mid-range passes resulting in catch-and-run touchdowns.
Fans called for Sabby Piscitelli's head....and to their defense, his mistakes resulted more from mental lapses and breakdown of fundamentals more than a failure to receive help (i.e., Barrett Ruud's statistical struggles being a derivative of the poor defensive line play). As tjeabt pointed out in his article, Sabby actually led the league in missed tackles, a dubious statistic for the player charged with stopping long 2nd-level runs and protecting the deep middle of the field. Sabby is rumored to have begun losing the faith of One Buc Place and could have one final audition this preseason to prove he's taken his game one step forward and is worthy of sticking with.
The fans' cries for help from much of the Buccaneer fanbase at the strong safety position were answered this offseason by the Buccaneer front office with the signing of Philadelphia S Sean Jones. Jones was solid in his time with the Cleveland Browns, with whom he led all NFL strong safeties in INTs in 2006 and 2007 before heading to Philadelphia in a slightly lesser role. However, Jones now finds himself in the perfect situation to come in and make an impact as a starter.
So, who should prevail in an open competition between the two? Let's take a closer look at both....
Pros: Is a physical, hard hitter...when he actually hits the mark. I say hit the mark because Sabby is guilty more often than he should be of trying to dislodge the ballcarrier's head from his body rather than wrapping up, especially in one-on-one situations, which has led to a handful of the big plays referenced earlier. However, when Sabby lays the wood, it can be felt. He's capable of putting in a good shot on the ballcarrier sufficient to jar the football loose. Where gang tackling is emphasized and executed more often in the Tampa 2 than in other defenses, a hard-hitter is advantageous in forcing some turnovers and he can do so a bit more freely in this defensive scheme than others. That is to say, where he's got some help in the form of other guys wrapping up the ballcarrier, Sabby, at 6-3, 225 pounds, in theory, should be able to deliver the kind of snot-bubbler to finish the play, make the ballcarrier think twice about fighting for the extra yards, and possibly jar the ball loose.
As for pass coverage, Sabby can make an opposing receiver tread lightly when trying to take advantage of the soft spots in the defense (namely behind the cornerbacks and in the seam) by delivering a tough hit to break up the pass. In zone coverage, once he recognizes the development of the play, he accelerates pretty well and can get himself in position to have a shot to make the play on a regular basis. His instincts might not have been ideal to this point for a safety, but he's got at least one more year to show what he can do...and the slight reduction of the area he's responsible for in coverage simply by the return to the Tampa 2 WILL help him out.
Cons: Back to reality.
He takes terrible routes to ballcarriers and receivers alike, which, for the last line of defense, leaves the ballcarrier on a dead sprint down the sidelines. That undoubtedly is what has irked the Buccaneers the most and is a reason the Buccaneer defense has ranked so poorly statistically, especially against the run.
Those shortcomings are not the only reason he's struggled against the run. His form tackling leaves much to be desired. As we saw early in the season, he's try to separate the ballcarrier's head from his body...kind of like Bullet Bill from Super Mario Brothers. In a gang-tackling defense like the Tampa 2, even slowing down a tackler and hanging on for dear life is going to bring some cavalry help in a matter of seconds. You don't have to try to ring a guy's bell on every play or try to force the ball loose. Sometimes, slowing a guy down and giving up a 9-10 yard play is worlds better than going for the proverbial home-run turnover and missing terribly.
He's a liability in pass coverage, although much less in zone coverage than in man. That makes it difficult to switch up your coverages between zone and man when you've got a guy you can't leave on an island with an athletic back, safety, or inside receiver. Against the Cowboys last year, the Boys ran the ingenious formation of splitting their 2 athletic tight ends out wide and sliding their wide receivers inside to create a mismatch on our safeties. Roy Williams ran a quick seam route and Sabby took a terrible angle in pursuit, leaving him several steps behind and giving the underperforming Roy Williams one of the easiest long TDs of his career.
Pros: Overall, a solid football player. Has good ball skills and great hands for a safety, as is evident by his gaudy interception total for an NFL safety. He led all NFL strong safeties in INTs in 2006 and 2007 with 5 INTs per season. He's able to sniff out a play pretty quickly and put himself in the middle of the passing lanes. In the running game, he has the physical tools to be useful, as he's quick, accelerates well, and has adequate tackling form. Jones tallied 111 and 96 tackles in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
The metrics support Jones' solid play in the passing game. In 2007, he ranked 10th out of all NFL safeties in stop rate % against the pass. He ranked in the top-25 of all NFL safeties in 2007 and 2008 in general stop rate% on a play-to-play basis. If you take Jones' previous responsibility from deep half-of-the-field to the slightly more limited range due to the 11-13 yard middle coverage of Barrett Ruud, suddenly, Jones has a little bit more freedom than he's used to having and can take some chances he might not have been able to take before. His upside in the passing game is substantial, to be sure.
Cons: Not bad size at 6'1, 220 pounds, but less than his competitor at the job. Can struggle a little bit to bring down bigger ballcarriers, but it's not a major red flag. What is a bit more concerning is his fluctuating stop rate % against the run. He fell to the bottom-half of starting NFL strong safeties in stop rate % against the run in 2007 in Cleveland. He jumped up to an impressive ranking of 17th in 2008 with the same squad before falling down to 58th in stop rate efficiency in 2009 with a surprisingly ineffective Philadelphia defense. The yards per play average on plays in which he was a part of ranked him in the bottom half of all starting NFL safeties from 2007-2009, with a rank of 61 in 2008.
How much of this can be put on Jones and how much can be put on the team he was playing with? I think some of it can be put on both. Great players find ways to make plays. However, there's no doubt it's more difficult to make plays on a consistent basis, and there's a greater opportunity for mistakes/missed tackles when your front 7 can't get the ballcarrier on the ground. It's tough to read too much into Jones run-stopping statistics at this point, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt until there's a reason not to.
Prediction: There's a reason Jones was brought in, and it wasn't to give the Buccaneers depth. It was to take over the starting strong safety position. Jones is a solid football player with undeniable skills in the passing game and the athleticism to be effective in the running game. Conversely, Sabby is a physical specimen also with the physical skills to be successful, but he's failed to record the statistics and put up the resume in the passing game to give anyone confidence that he's the long-term answer at strong safety. I think the Buccaneer defense is looking to get back to stopping the run and forcing turnovers like the teams of old, and, so long as Jones proves to be at least adequate against the run, his playmaking ability will carry the day and he'll earn the starting position. Jones.