The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ secondary was once considered to be the worst in the NFL. At least to some, they were. And they still sit near the bottom of the league allowing the third most passing yards in the league through fourteen games. But the end statistical result is more than likely going to be because of the head start they gave themselves this season.
In their first eight games of the season, Tampa Bay’s secondary surrendered more than 2,300 passing yards (293.5 yards per game), and five of the eight quarterbacks they faced reached 300-yards or more in their game against the Bucs.
Since then, the Buccaneers’ young defensive backs have allowed just one 300-yard passer in the last six games, and are giving up just over 250-yards per game. Not much of a difference, until you consider the team has won five of those six games, and they’re now facing opponents who have a reason to pass late in the game instead of milking the clock with the run game.
In fact, as it stands today, Tampa Bay’s secondary has allowed less than 100-yards more than the 11-3 Seattle Seahawks defense. However, the Bucs’ defense has had to defend 32 more passing attempts while doing it.
Another area of improvement for this young secondary group has come in touchdowns. Currently, the unit has given up 29 passing touchdowns in 2019. Sixth worst in the NFL. Nineteen of those came before the team hosted the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10, as the team allowed nearly two and half touchdown passes per game through eight.
Starting in Week 10, the Bucs’ secondary has allowed ten more, but has only allowed four of them in the past four games. This stretch averages out to just over one and a half per game, or nearly a full touchdown less per game allowed by the secondary in this back half of the season.
Not championship numbers, by any means. But improvement, and solid improvement at that. So, what’s changed? According to head coach Bruce Arians, it’s communication.
“The young guys learned to communicate especially the safeties. Learning to communicate with those corners, and we still have a problem every now and then of dropping our guy and passing something off that’s not supposed to be passed off. That communication has been key to it.” - Bruce Arians
Communication is something we heard a lot about in training camp and the pre-season. And the defense started off fairly well, surrendering 158-yards to Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers’ passing attack currently ranked 13th in the league.
But then they came down to earth a bit, especially as teams keyed in on which looks and route combinations gave the young group the biggest problems.
As the sum of the secondary has gotten better, so too has it’s individual pieces. Sean Murphy-Bunting for one, was hearing early whispers of bust in just his first season as a second-round draft pick.
He responded well however, and has started eight of the last nine games, and has two interceptions in the last three weeks after having just one in the first eleven games. His 70-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions not only sealed the victory for his team, but also ranks as the fourth longest interception return this season.
Oh, and he’s also the only rookie cornerback with three interceptions this season. Teammate, and fellow rookie Jamel Dean, leads all first year defensive backs with his sixteen passes defensed as well.
Talking about Murphy-Bunting’s interception, Arians said, “It’s a film study thing, showing the blitz, making them run a hot route, and then jumping it. It’s a very veteran move and he’s a very smart player. That’s why I think he has such a great future. And he can catch.”
At 7-7, things are trending upward in Tampa Bay, and everyone is feeling it. Arians himself ended his Monday press conference with a fun moment by saying, “Jamel Dean - I’m going to get him a tennis racket or something. You can’t get an easier pick-six and he’s just like Sean, he’s studying it, but we have to work on the JUGS machine.”
Funny, but there’s a little bit of truth in every joke. And if this Buccaneers secondary is showing anything, it’s the amount of potential they have and their determination to get better. Bet Dean isn’t looking to give his coach any more joke material anytime soon.