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Buccaneers at Steelers 2019: Defensive position battle stock report

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How the position battles on the defense look, following Tampa Bay’s first action of the pre-season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

For the first time in 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field on Friday night against a live opponent that wasn’t also a teammate. The first pre-season game of the year is always a welcome return to football, and the results are often over scrutinized or over valued as everyone looks for glimpses of what the regular season team will look like.

That being said, here are my thoughts on how the Bucs position battles on the defensive side of the ball continued to develop coming out of Pittsburgh.

STARTING CORNERBACK

Vernon Hargreaves III indeed got his shot at starting on the outside along with Carlton Davis for Tampa Bay here in pre-season Week 1. Early, it didn’t look good as the former first-round draft pick was beat for a big gain on the Steelers second offensive play of the game.

It wouldn’t be the last big play of the game for the Steelers offense, but fortunately, it was the only time Hargreaves allowed his man to get the better of him.

Later, in the second quarter, Hargreaves would make a nice play to pick off Pittsburgh quarterback Josh Dobbs. It was eventually called back due to a penalty, but the play itself was a good one, and a solid display of the now veteran cornerback bouncing back after an early defeat. Something this defense hasn’t exactly been known for during recent years.

Meanwhile, second-round draft pick and perceived contender to Hargreaves’ job, Sean Murphy-Bunting had a luke warm debut in the NFL. Playing with the second-team defense Murphy-Bunting looked like a rookie at times, and showed potential for greater things at others.

At the end of the night Murphy-Bunting, like all players will be focusing on improving for the future rather than dwelling on any struggles.

At this point, I’m calling this a push. Hargreaves didn’t do enough to eliminate any thoughts of the rookie catching up to him, but the rookie didn’t do enough to show he’s a clear improvement over Hargreaves III either.

Stock Up: None

Stock Down: None

SECONDARY DEPTH

Behind the top three cornerback candidates are a handful of other players looking to fill a handful of other spots on the final roster.

Two that stood out among the crowd are Ryan Smith and Mazzi Wilkins. Smith is mostly known for his special teams ability, displaying the talents to operate in the open field and make solid tackles.

For Smith, there was a specific moment in the second-quarter which stood out. Steelers running back Benny Snell Jr. had the cornerback one-on-one during an outside run, and Smith was able to take him down cleanly despite facing a very athletic back who Pittsburgh expects to contribute during the regular season.

Wilkins had the opportunity to make some other plays, and being in the right place at the right time carries it’s own moral victory of sorts. But the moment which will carry his confidence into the next game and the week’s practices came with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter.

Down 30-22, the Buccaneers needed the ball back to try and put together a game tying drive late. Wilkins was able to make a play, forcing a fumble subsequently recovered by Isaiah Johnson.

The turnover gave Ryan Griffin and the Tampa Bay offense the chance they needed, and while it didn’t pan out, it’s always good to see the defense getting takeaways when the team needs it most.

Wilkins certainly helped himself, and with Smith’s suspension coming up, there’s a chance for Wilkins to play himself into a roster spot.

STOCK UP: CB, MAZZI WILKINS

STOCK DOWN: NONE

PASS RUSHERS

Last year’s pass rush was not effective as an overall effort. This year, an aggressive scheme spearheaded by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is expected to change this.

In Week 1 of the pre-season excitement about the defense is higher than I can remember in a long time, but it was important not to come in with unrealistic expectations.

Bowles has talked about how important communication is for this defense to accomplish what they need to, and stepping foot onto the field for the first time against a live opponent, there were expected growing pains.

Overall, the performance was solid. Without Vita Vea eating up a lot of blocks up front, there are going to be some new wrinkles the defense hasn’t had a lot of time to work on just yet.

While the defense is getting used to a new look altogether, one player is getting a new start to his career. Of course, I’m talking about Noah Spence.

Spence had a lot of excitement following him as a second-round draft pick just a few short years ago. There were questions as to whether or not he could survive in the NFL as a down lineman, but his rookie year put some of those worries to rest.

Injury contributed to a down second season, and then of course his third season did nothing but elevate those worries to new levels, making this season especially critical for him specifically.

It’s only one week, but so far Spence’s fourth effort to become an impact part of the Buccaneers is off to a good start.

Without Jason Pierre-Paul it’s going to fall on guys like Spence, Carl Nassib and free-agent acquisition Shaquil Barrett. This week serves to build confidence in the ability of Spence to be a contributing part of the formula in 2019.

STOCK UP: OLB, NOAH SPENCE

STOCK DOWN: NONE

You may have noticed I don’t really have anyone’s stock going down at the moment. This is by design, as it’s the first week of pre-season and nobody looked glaringly like they didn’t belong on the NFL field.

Depth is and will continue to be an issue for the defense, but this is expected when talking about a unit which was one of the worst - if not the worst - defensive unit in 2018. Hard to build depth on top of that kind of foundation.

As the next round of practices get underway, we’ll be on the lookout to see which players take this experience and forge it into growth, and which ones continue to make the same mistakes or even regress. This is where stocks will go down moving forward.

Overall, the first defense looked solid, and the scheme changes are evident even if they weren’t quite as flashy as some hoped for.

Hang in there, we’ve still got three weeks between us and the 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers regular season.