Keith Tandy has played some outstanding football over the past two weeks, filling in for injured free safety Chris Conte. Tandy came up with game-sealing interceptions in both of those weeks, and led the team in tackles against the New Orleans Saints, creating another interception with a great jump on the ball.
Meanwhile, Chris Conte has been up-and-down at best in his 11 starts this year. He’s struggled to create impact plays, with two interceptions on the season, and has had a few lapses in coverage, as he has every year. Quite simply: Conte is not a great free safety.
So the result here should be obvious, right? Conte’s getting Wally Pipp’d by Tandy, and the Bucs have their new starting free safety. Sorry, but it’s not that easy.
There’s more to safety play than jumping routes
Tandy’s done very well the past two weeks by aggressively jumping routes. He studies film, finds tendencies that tell him what the offense is going to do, and makes plays based on that film study. It looks terrific when it works, as it did here.
Those very early jumps look great, but they’re also very risky. If Drew Brees was pump-faking for a double-move, instead of actually throwing the ball short, Tandy would have gotten burned. We’ve seen that repeatedly over the past years, in basically every game the Bucs have faced Drew Brees.
Doubtless Tandy had some reads and tells that suggested this was not what the Saints were doing on those plays, but NFL teams self-scout. They look at their own tendencies and tells, and try to fool defenses into doing exactly what Tandy did here. These times, it worked.
At some point, an NFL offense will figure out how to beat him — and it would not surprise me if that’s exactly what Sean Payton is scheming up right now, with the two teams facing off again in just over a week.
We’ve seen this at work this year, in fact. Keith Tandy didn’t get a lot of playing time before Conte’s injury, but when he did, he gave up a huge pass to the Arizona Cardinals in a blowout loss earlier this year.
There’s one thing that can help here: a really good pass rush. Taking advantage of aggressive safety play requires time in the pocket. The Bucs’ pass rush has been resurgent in recent weeks, so that’s certainly a reason to keep Tandy at safety.
But Conte is the safer play. While Conte doesn’t make these impact plays much, though he did have two interceptions in the two weeks before his injuries, he doesn’t really get beat deep much, either. We tend to forget this, and blame Conte for a lot of deep passes, but the Bucs were the single best team at preventing deep completions last season.
Conte may not produce as many splash plays as Tandy, but he’s also the less likely to completely blow a coverage. That’s a tradeoff that can be difficult to evaluate, and it’s hard to say how often Tandy’s aggression will get him burned or Conte’s passivity will keep him from making a play.
It doesn’t hurt that Conte was productive in the few weeks before he got injured, of course.
Which player the Bucs choose to start may say something about how defensive coordinator Mike Smith views the safety position, and defense in general. Does he want a defense that produces turnovers but will allow a few big plays, or does he want one that plays conservative, limiting football? I guess we’ll see on Sunday.