Mason Foster may be the biggest question mark on defense for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's not the only rookie who will start, but Adrian Clayborn has looked ready to play in the NFL from the first second of his first preseason game. Foster, on the other hand, has struggled in coverage and at times looked a little lost. While Foster has all the physical skills to succeed and has looked especially fast and aggressive in the running game, his inexperience in coverage is his Achilles heel. And against the Lions, this could come back to bite the Bucs.
When the Bucs last played the Detroit Lions they lost in overtime to Maurice Morris running wild and a seemingly unstoppable Calvin Johnson. With a beefed up and improved defensive line, the Detroit running game should be easier to stop. And with Aqib Talib back the Bucs have someone who can match up with Calvin Johnson, at least physically. Stopping Calvin Johnson is another matter.
A bigger problem for the Bucs may be the Lions' tight ends. With 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew the Lions have a talented tight end who can function in both the running game and the passing game, catching an impressive 71 balls for 772 yards last season. In addition to Pettigrew, Detroit also has Tony Scheffler. Scheffler used to be a star for the Denver Broncos, until Josh McDaniels while running that franchise into the ground so fast, even Hugh Culverhouse would have been surprised. Regardless, Scheffler is another two-way tight end who can be a threat in the passing game. And for the Bucs, this is a problem.
Last season, the Bucs were mediocre against tight ends in the passing game. According to Football Outsiders, they ranked 16th in the league, which is just about average. However, that was with Barrett Ruud directing the defense and dropping to the deep middle of the field in Tampa 2 sets. Ruud was experienced and for all his faults, he was a solid player in coverage. The same cannot be said of Mason Foster, at least not yet.
This is a major problem, because in most sets the linebackers are the ones responsible for tight ends in the passing game. Aside from all the problems the Lions' spread sets could pose for the Bucs' pass defense, the tight end exploiting the deep middle of the field is a real possibility with Foster at middle linebacker.
The Bucs could address this by playing their nickel sets more often, keeping Foster off the field in favor of an extra cornerback or safety. If they do that, the Lions could just decide to start running the ball. Both their tight ends are accomplished blockers, so this should pose another problem for the team.
Another option involves giving the tight ends some exra safety attention. Of course, that would leave Calvin Johnson with a lot of room to exploit. There is no easy fix for the Bucs here, and they will have to leave themselves exposed in one way or another on Sunday.
I like Mason Foster, and the Bucs have no choice but to play him and hope he learns quickly. But don't be surprised if you develop a recurring nightmare heavily featuring Brandon Pettigrew while Foster learns on the job..