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Consistent inconsistencies currently define Tampa Bay’s defense

A lack of synchronization has kept the defense from reaching its full potential.

Tampa Bay’s young secondary is learning on the job and it shows.
Photo Credit: John A. Babiak, Bucs Nation/@Photog_JohnB

Hey guys! Guess what? Tampa Bay’s defense isn’t very good.


You shouldn’t be surprised if you’ve followed this team over the past decade. Outside of brief stints in 2013 and 2016, the defensive play in Tampa Bay hasn’t been up to par since 2007.

Not much has changed in 2019. The same issue that has haunted the Bucs in the past continues to haunt them, and that’s the pass defense. According to standard statistics, the Buccaneers currently own the leagues’ 31st-ranked pass defense. It doesn’t get much better when it comes to advanced stats, either. According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs are the 26th-ranked pass defense in the NFL.

Bruce Arians said during the offseason that the “secondary was fixed”. That obviously isn’t the case, and Arians shed some light on that statement - and what it means now - earlier in the week.

“Totally, because of talent, but that talent isn’t showing up [and] playing that way,” Arians said when asked to revisit the aforementioned statement about the secondary. “It’s playing on Sunday, not in shorts in spring. You get fooled sometimes in shorts in the spring, because that’s the guys that are out there playing. Big guys, you never know until you put pads on. Some of those guys, when the noise level goes up, it all changes too.”

The problems in the secondary are not easy ones to fix, either. According to Arians, the secondary is having issues when they are required to play zone defense, therefore, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles shifted to more man coverage to make things easier.

“The simplest thing is play ‘Dude’ coverage – you’ve got that dude. You don’t [have] to think. Seattle had a really good plan of picking us and doing some things to get guys loose, but in our zone matchups and stuff, that’s been disappointing,” Arians said on Wednesday. “When we played the Giants, for instance, we give up a first play missed tackle, jumping over a route. That’s just dumb and inexperienced.”

“It’s just playing smarter. That’s all it is – it’s playing smarter.”

Arians’ statements can be exemplified in multiple ways.

Here, we have a zone coverage bust that’s on Mike Edwards. You can tell this is zone by how the defenders drop into coverage and it appears to be Cover 3. The bust begins with what looks to an improper read on Darius Slayton’s route, because he takes a terrible angle as he attempts to help Vernon Hargreaves III in coverage.

And this is the perfect example of when man coverage goes wrong. Watch linebacker Kevin Minter and Hargreaves at the bottom right of the screen:

Here’s a slow-motion shot just to twist the knife a bit more. This time, the collision occurs on the right-hand side of the screen:

Ouch. Minter wasn’t playing around.

So, we have coaches admitting that their players struggle with zone defense (which is fine) and we have numerical evidence that the same players struggle with man defense. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bucs allow an average of 2.88 yards of separation between a receiver (wideout or tight end) and defender (corner, safety, or linebacker) at the time of a quarterback’s release. The league average is 2.83 yards. Around 46% of eligible receivers (17 of 37) were recorded at 2.83 yards or higher, so while there are some more heavily-weighted players in certain games, there’s not too much of a disparity between a trend and an anomaly when it comes to the sticky-rating of the Tampa Bay defense.

The secondary has obviously been the root of the problems on defense, but there is also evidence to prove that the pass rush hasn’t done its job effectively, either.

Next Gen Stats says that 4.5 yards is the average distance between a defender at the time of a quarterback’s release. The Bucs have averaged 4.49 yards through eight games, with 59% of eligible defenders (19 of 32) recording a 4.5 average or below.

That sounds good, right? Sure it does. When you add in the fact that Shaq Barrett is tied with Myles Garret for the league lead in sacks (10.5), it sounds even better. But as a whole, the rest of the team has just 8.5 sacks. To make things worse, 1.5 of those belong to Jason Pierre-Paul, who has been active for the past two games.

Football Outsiders has the Bucs with the league’s 10th-worst sack percentage (5.9%), which tells me that the Bucs are good at getting pressure on the quarterback, but aren’t necessarily good at bringing them down. They’re also tied with the Denver Broncos (23rd) with 19 sacks on the year.

The Bucs’ front seven is good at dialing up pressure, but they lack at taking the quarterback down. You can see that here, as Daniel Jones is able to create just enough time in order to find Sterling Shepard for a big completion.

Good teams will see this on film and scheme up the proper routes and tell their quarterbacks that as “long as they stand tall in the pocket - or can break outside of the pocket - then they will eventually find an open receiver”. There is still a good chance that they will get hit, considering the fact that the Bucs are tied for ninth in the league with 50 quarterback hits on the year, but you’re not as likely as to get hurt with today’s rules. There’s also a good chance you’ll gain a good chunk of yards - if you’re throwing the ball.

The reward outweighs the risk.

This is one example of how the inconsistent pass rush can harm the secondary. The defensive backs have solid coverage, but Wilson has all day to throw. Once Wilson breaks from the pocket, Sean Murphy-Bunting has to grab DK Metcalf’s jersey to avoid a touchdown:

Arians even spoke on the fact that the defense didn’t get to the quarterback enough in the loss to the Seahawks. “That long one at the end, we had zero coverage,” he said in reference to the 53-yard touchdown from Russell Wilson to Metcalf. “Somebody’s got to get home and hit the quarterback.”

He’s right. Wilson had all day to throw the ball. No one was even close.

“Yeah, getting home on those blitzes,” Arians said when asked about how the rest of the defense can help the secondary. “We sent everybody twice and didn’t get home. That isn’t the back end’s fault – that’s the guys blitzing.”

The pressure/sacks aren’t showing up when it matters, either. The Bucs have just 11 second half-sacks on the season. Three of those have come in the fourth quarter, but the Bucs have had just two total second half-sacks and zero fourth quarter-sacks over the last four games.

And as you can see here, the Bucs have to blitz a lot just to create pressure, in general. That puts a lot of responsibility on the secondary.

If the blitz can’t - or doesn’t - get to the quarterback, then an already-struggling secondary is going to have to work even harder (and smarter) to win the matchups on the field.

Which leads back to the secondary’s issues that were discussed in the first segment. As we’ve seen, the players back there aren’t winning their matchups often.

And it’s not only costing them yards and points, but it’s costing them wins, as well.

We aren’t done yet. I know, you would just love for me to keep piling it on, right?

The inability to close out games is another defensive issue that’s costing this team games.

This unit is basically Jekyll and Hyde on Sunday. The disparity between the first and second halves are pretty alarming and it starts with point differential. The Bucs hold a (+3) and (+17) scoring margin in the first and second quarter, but that plummets to a (-25) and (-11) margin in the third and fourth quarter. They’ve also lost three-fourth quarter leads, which were all three-point advantages as the final period began.

To be fair, the offense hasn’t done them any favors when it comes to holding on to the ball in the second half. Tampa Bay’s offense has nine turnovers in the second half and seven of those have come in the fourth quarter. Even if it’s a small lead, it would be hard to hold a lead when your opposition receives extra opportunities.

But I digress, let’s get back to the defense.

There have also been several instances where the defense has committed egregious penalties at some of the most inopportune times, especially late in games in which they are within reach of either a tie or the lead.

Take the Titans game, for example. Carlton Davis looked to have interceptions on back-to-back plays in the third quarter, but he was eventually called for defensive pass interference on both plays.

The first penalty was on a 3rd-and-11. Without the penalty, the drive would’ve stalled and the Bucs would’ve received the ball on offense.

This is the first penalty. Davis is at the bottom of the screen above the “30” on the field. You can see the receiver runs a dig and Davis just makes way too much contact at the top of the route. It’s not like Davis was beat or anything, either. It’s just a bad play on his part, in general.

This is the second DPI penalty:

This one was just flat-out unnecessary. Ryan Tannehill just chucked the ball up due to the pressure from Ndamukong Suh. The pass could’ve been picked off without Davis’ push-off, or it just would’ve fallen incomplete. Both penalties moved a stagnant Titans offense into field-goal range, which they later converted for three points.

Oh, and they won the game, 27-23.

You also the SMB penalty shown earlier. That was in the third quarter, as well.

But how about the illegal contact call on Jamel Dean in overtime against the Seahawks? If Dean doesn’t make contact with Metcalf on this play, then it’s 3rd-and-10 at the TB44 and the Bucs have a good shot at getting the ball back.

Granted, he does get beat and is forced to make contact, but that also ties into the previous point about the team not executing coverages properly.

Instead, the Seahawks were granted a 1st-and-10 and would drive the remainder of the field for the game-winning touchdown.

But even with all of these issues, at least the Bucs can rely on their suffocating defense.


That is definitely true for the first six games of the season, but I’m not so sure about the last two weeks. Both the Titans and the Seahawks were able to find running room against the Bucs. The Seahawks even had Chris Carson run for more than 100 yards last week and was the second team to go over 100 yards as a whole against the Bucs.

The defense allowed just 11 runs of 10+ yards through the first six games, but have allowed five such runs through the last two games. The Titans and Seahawks combined for 217 yards on 43 runs (5.04 ypc), while the previous six opponents combined for 408 yards on 141 carries (2.89 ypc).

Missed tackles have been the biggest issue, which is usually a sign of a tired team. That would make sense for the Bucs, who have been on the road since September 22. Bruce Arians even held a “mental practice” on Wednesday to let his players rest.

Carson breaks four tackles just on this run, including two attempts by defensive linemen at the same time:

That play was a very disappointing play because the Bucs have been very good at tackling all year long, but over the last couple of games, it’s been suspect.

I get it. Carson and Derrick Henry are like, two of the hardest running backs to tackle, but still, it’s not like the Bucs were facing scrubs before them. They faced some of the premier talent in the league and handled them with ease, so it’s been interesting to see the decline in the run defense over the last couple of weeks.

And all of this ends with the Bucs taking on the Cardinals this weekend, who are the third-most efficient rushing team in the NFL.

Will the run defense break this weekend? How that situation plays out will have a tremendous impact on what happens Sunday.

I’m not trying to chastise or condemn the defense in any way, and I also believe that there has been improvement in certain areas. But this unit really struggles to put out consistent production as a whole and it’s been lacking results, at best.

If the pass rush gets there, then the secondary doesn’t hold up. If the secondary holds up, then the pass rush doesn’t show up. Time and time again the defense has been consistently inconsistent on the front and back end.

There have been times when both sides have worked and it’s looked great, but that’s been the minority rather than the majority.

There’s still a half season to grow. Hopefully that happens and we can start see what this defense can look like when executed properly and effectively.

But until that day comes, it will be a bumpy ride and we will all be here for it.