The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw their defense improve by leaps and bounds, mostly during the second half of the 2016 season. Almost all of that improvement was due to the pass defense — in fact, they actually regressed against the run, proving yet again that run defense really doesn’t matter all that much if you just shut down the pass.
The Bucs were so good against the pass because of, what else, a combination between defensive line and secondary play. The secondary in particular was on fire during the second half of the season. The defense took away the ball an average of 2.5 times per game over the final eight games.
That quality play doesn’t quite show up in Pro Football Focus’ year-end rankings, though, as the analysts place the Bucs’ secondary just fifteenth in the NFL - which is still a big improvement on last year’s 25th overall ranking.
Switching teams in the offseason apparently revitalized the elite Brent Grimes we last saw in 2013. Grimes led the league with 18 combined interceptions and pass breakups, helping him to the fifth-highest grade among cornerback in 2016. Unfortunately for Vernon Hargreaves III, Grimes’ exceptional coverage meant more passes thrown his way—to the tune of a league-high 113 targets and 80 receptions. With that sort of volume, Hargreaves unsurprisingly gave up more receiving yards than anyone, as the only player to top 1,000 yards allowed (1,069). Chris Conte looked more like the player we saw during his last season in Chicago before Keith Tandy took over at free safety. The swing in performance from Conte to Tandy was about as big as it could have been. Conte ranked 90th out of 91 safeties in overall grade, while Tandy was the highest-graded safety over the final five weeks of the season, allowing a passer rating of just 34.3 into his coverage.
Now, generally speaking, Pro Football Focus’ player grades are the least useful and reliable parts of their work, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the secondary. There’s so much contextual work and so much that can break down in complicated ways that it’s often pretty hard to evaluate individual players and see what, exactly, is happening back there.
There’s also another reason to assume that the Bucs are actually better than that ranking suggests: this ranking includes the entire season, which means the first six or so games in which the Bucs were still getting familiar with the defensive scheme are skewing the data. Or, depending on your point of view, making it a more honest reflection of the entire defense.
That said, the most interesting part of that ranking isn’t so much the total performance, but the massive difference between Chris Conte and Keith Tandy. Conte apparently just collapsed this year, and certainly got beat repeatedly. Whether that was always his fault is disputable, and I don’t think he was quite as bad as that ranking suggests, but 90th out of 91 is a somewhat telling ranking. Conte is likely to be replaced this year.