The Buccaneers signed free agent safety Darian Stewart on Tuesday in a move to add much-needed depth to the defensive backfield.
Orion Stewart and D’Cota Dixon both suffered season-ending injuries during the first week and a half of camp, leaving the Bucs thin at a very important position.
In comes Stewart, who was a four-year starter for the Denver Broncos before suffering the fate of a cap casualty back in March. To Stewart’s misfortune, he wasn’t able to land a deal with a new team and had to play the waiting game throughout the offseason.
But his bad luck could turn into a stroke of good luck for the Bucs, which would benefit both parties in return.
The 10-year vet finally found his ground in 2014 when he started 14 games at free safety for the Baltimore Ravens. He then moved on to the Broncos, where he would start 58 games, including the Super Bowl victory against the Carolina Panthers.
Over the last five seasons, Stewart started 72 games, recording 307 total tackles, 10 interceptions, 27 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, and six quarterback hits.
Stewart played the free safety position, but was moved to strong safety in 2018. It’s no secret that Todd Bowles loves versatility, so the extra experience should help him make this team.
But words will only get you so far. Let’s look at some past examples of Stewart’s play and how it could help the Bucs.
Picking off the G.O.A.T.
What defender doesn’t want to pick off Tom Brady? I mean, that’s a dream for anyone who lines up on the opposite of New England’s pride and joy.
Well, Stewart got to do just that in the 2016 AFC Championship game.
Here he is playing single-high in what looks to be Cover 3. The Broncos start out in a Cover 2 look, but free safety Josh Bush moves up to help cover Danny Amendola, leaving Stewart to decide which part of the field to cover. Stewart - at the bottom of the screen near the 40 - ran a 4.53 at the combine and scored well in the 10- and 20-yard splits, so he has the burst, speed, and acceleration to close and make a play from this position, which are assets that can really help the Bucs.
But it’s his eyes and his ability to read Brady that allows him to make the play here. In an uncharacteristic move, Brady appears to stare down his intended target and Stewart reads it all the way. The end result is a nice break on the ball and a strong finish as Stewart comes down with the pick.
Obviously, a strong pass rush and an under-thrown ball aided in the interception, but it doesn’t erase the Stewart did his job and made the most of an opportunity.
Super Bowl Sack
The 2016 playoffs were very kind to Stewart, who was a key piece in helping the Broncos win their third championship.
This play is a perfect example of how Bowles could use Stewart on a safety blitz, something that has been seen often during camp. It was one of Kentrell Brice’s key plays during the first week of training camp.
Stewart times this out perfectly and finds the correct lane to Cam Newton with ease. It’s not easy to take down the Panthers’ quarterback, but Stewart makes it look somewhat simple on this play.
He’s the safety at the bottom of the screen:
Support against the run
As mentioned earlier, the Broncos had Stewart starting at the strong safety position in 2018.
He is pretty much a box defender for this play, lining up just outside the right tackle. Regardless, he is up close to the line in a short-yardage situation (3rd and 1), which usually means he is in run support.
Sorry, this GIF moves fast due to the quick snap, so be ready for it. Stewart (#26) is to the left of the screen.
Every defender has their own gap, and Stewart’s is the backside B-gap. He sniffs out the play, knifes through the line, and takes down Melvin Gordon. Granted, it was a two-yard gain for the first down, but Stewart still made a good play.
A strong safety that can cover, too
I’m honestly not sure exactly what coverage the Broncos are playing here. It looks like Cover 3 pre-snap, but almost like they have zone match rules, where defenders play zone until a receiver comes into their area and it looks more like man. Regardless, Stewart, despite being a safety, is one of the defenders tasked with underneath coverage in the hook/curl zone to the boundary. Here, he perfectly mirrors the route in space as the receiver comes into his zone and Stewart makes the play, resulting in an incompletion. That’s a tremendous, heady play by the veteran, showcasing good awareness, technique, and ball skills.
All of these examples shed a small light on what this guy can do for the Bucs. Don’t get it twisted: it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Like every player, Stewart has his deficiencies, but this coaching staff will do whatever it takes to keep those from getting exposed.
He’s a bit smaller at 5-foot-11, but can hold his own at 214-pounds. A 37” vertical helps, as well.
One has to wonder how much he has left in the tank at 31, but Stewart’s age is also a good thing. The Bucs’ secondary is one of the youngest secondaries in the league and a veteran presence with postseason experience can benefit the youngsters in a big way.
The move to strong safety in 2018 may open the door to the idea that Stewart has a lost a step, but his experience should help cover that up to an extent.
It will be fun to watch him grow in this defense and it will be interesting to see if it bleeds into the regular season.