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A look at an improving secondary: Carlton Davis

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The Buccaneers pass defense went from laughing stock to formidable, let’s see how this happened, one player at a time.

NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers
 Carlton Davis III (33) of the Bucs
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s no secret that in recent years (and not so recent years) the secondary play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been incredibly suspect. Bucs fans watched in horror as passes were completed up and down the field, stifling any chances of achieving a winning season.

For years, Mike Smith constantly confused his players, called plays that weren’t practiced, and somehow stuck around in Tampa Bay until Koetter finally cut ties after a historically awful beginning to the 2018 season.

Once Bowles stepped in, hope was regained. The former head coach of the New York Jets, and defensive mastermind, was finally coming to turn this defense around. It almost felt as if the fan-base was finally changing their tune from cynicism to optimism when it came to this defense.

Even Bruce Arians, when asked about the secondary in the off-season, dubiously stated:

“I think they’re really, really good,” Arians said. “With Carlton [Davis] and Vernon [Hargreaves], we knew we had two solid corners. Now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan [Smith] came a long way. So, yeah, I think what was earmarked as a problem set back in January, that’s totally fixed. Let’s knock on wood they stay healthy.”

We all waited for the season to start, just to see the improved secondary that Arians was so sure of. Well, the season started, and through 9 weeks, the secondary looked horrible. In fact, through the first 9 games of the season, this secondary gave up an average of 298.9 Yds/game. If they had finished the season in this fashion, they would’ve been ranked worst in the NFL.

Fortunately, they did not finish this way. The last 7 games highlighted that this secondary may actually be on its way to being fixed. Through these 7 weeks, the Bucs gave up an average of 233.1 Yds/game against the pass, which if this were the season average, would’ve ranked 15th in the league.

So, how did this happen? Well, when position groups play with one another over a period of time, they tend to mesh better. When looking at the beginning of the season, there were lots of miscommunications, missed assignments, and soft coverages. Towards the end, they started to gain confidence in knowing where they were supposed to be and it showed.

Since the overall secondary improved at such an alarming rate, I wanted to see the improvements on the individual level. So far, my look at Carlton Davis has shown me that at the very least, he’s improved greatly.

Carlton Davis had a pretty forgettable 2018 season, but then again, so did the team overall. Davis had 0 interceptions, 4 passes defensed, and gave up a 119.8 passer rating when targeted.* In 2019, he had 1 interception, 19 passes defensed, and gave up an 80.0 passer rating when targeted, with 55 more targets coming his way.* In fact, he was the most targeted defender in the NFL last season with 117 coming his way.*

Despite this progression, it is possible that the defense he played under in his rookie campaign led to such a performance. This is why I didn’t want to look year to year, but rather game to game. In 2019, Davis definitely improved week to week and here’s a look at how:

REINED IN HIS AGGRESSIVENESS

Carlton Davis even coming out of Auburn was known for being an aggressive press corner who would bully a lot of wide receivers with his size. This is often also true in the NFL which comes with its good, and its bad. The good is that he locks down his receiver, the bad is often a holding or pass interference penalty.

In 2019, Davis was flagged 5 times for pass interference and 4 times for holding. 4 of these combined 9 penalties occurred on 3rd or 4th down, which is absolutely deflating since the defense had a prime opportunity to get off the field.

Fortunately for Davis, he was able to keep the majority of these mistakes in the early part of the season after committing 6 within the first 8 weeks.

One reason that he got flagged so often is because he is incredibly grabby. When he feels that a receiver is going to beat him during their break on a route, he often grabs on to orient himself, which leads to these penalties.

Here is a look at him grabbing a hold of Marquise Goodwin (#11) on a comeback, or out (can’t really tell since he gets mugged):

The longer you look at this play, the worse it gets. This play resulted in a sack on Jimmy Garoppolo (#10), and it happened on a 4th down. Talk about deflating. Davis feels Goodwin break and instead of collecting himself and getting in position to defend, he grabs the jersey and pulls him down.

These kinds of things happened quite often in the first few weeks of the season, which led to quite a few penalties being racked up.

Here’s a play where he gets flagged for holding on a 15 yard dig route, which was often a route that Davis struggled with:

Again, note what would’ve happened if this flag didn’t occur. Davis follows D.J. Moore (#12) pretty well through the stem of his route, yet the second Moore cuts, Davis grabs him from the outside shoulder (in clear view of the ref) to prevent getting beat.

As I said before, this happened quite a bit. It was unfortunate to see since he would be just fine on these plays without grabbing. His position is usually good enough to compete, but the panic sets in and leads to mistakes.

Now, at the end of the season, he seemed to have more confidence in the way he defended the top of routes. He was still very aggressive, yet rode that aggressiveness down the line instead of all the way to a penalty.

Here’s a look at a play against the Houston Texans later on in the season where he played a route out of the slot with the perfect amount of aggressiveness:

As with the last example, he is playing man to man in the slot. I prefer to see him on the outside but he often mirrored the offense’s number one receiver so this is understandable. He follows Deandre Hopkins (#10) through his release to the left, and when Hopkins breaks to the post Davis feels the movement and smoothly flips his hips and lightly puts his hand on his shoulder to follow him.

Instead of grabbing on and getting flagged, he plays this very well and breaks the pass up, against one of the best receivers in the league.

SEASON LONG ADJUSTMENTS

Throughout the season, I noticed a lot of progression not just in the reining in of his aggressiveness, but also in the way he played certain routes.

One route that he struggled with a bit early in the season were curl routes, especially when he was in zone. Here’s and example of one against the New York Giants in week 3:

Notice how again, he plays the route just fine initially. However, he feels the speed of the receiver and starts to break into a full out sprint to defend a possible go route, leaving him high and dry when the the receiver came back.

Here’s a similar route against the Colts where he plays it just perfectly:

I’m not completely sure if all of these improvements are from watching film more intently, or if it was purely confidence, but it almost looks like he knows this route is coming. The rest of the defense looks to be in zone, but he plays this almost like he’s man to man.

The receiver takes off and Davis plays very comfortably. Instead of biting on the speed as in the last play, he patiently follows him until he makes his cut and Davis ends up on him like a blanket. Despite the pass being pretty poor, Carlton really shows a vast improvement in the coverage of this route.

Another route that has been poorly defended by the Buccaneers as a whole for years has been quick in breaking routes. We have all seen slants and crosses come wide open over the middle for easy yards as of late, and it really is frustrating to watch.

Here’s this happening in Week 1:

As with most of the plays we’ve seen, speed seems to get to Davis. He knows he isn’t as fast as most of these speedy guys like Goodwin so he usually grabs. Yet on these sorts of routes he can’t even keep up with him to grab. In the play above he just gets beat to the middle of the field, plain and simple.

He just doesn’t get in the right position on this play. It looks like he starts with outside leverage, which is fine since Goodwin could beat him over the top. Yet, when he sees the route develop he doesn’t react quickly enough to adjust and gets burned.

Here’s him beating this route easily against the Falcons in week 12:

Here he is, again starting with an outside leverage. The perfect route against this leverage is a cross or quick slant because of how quickly the receiver (especially Julio Jones) can beat the corner to the spot. Not this time. Davis immediately feels the route and breaks hard on it to cause an incompletion. What a refreshing sight to see.

IN-GAME ADJUSTMENTS

One of the greatest attributes of a player at any level of any sport, is the ability to change the plan once things begin to go awry. In the NFL, once teams begin to show their hand, practice scenarios may go out the window and a new approaches must be taken to win. This happens at the coaching level, all the way down to individual player adjustments.

Here is one such adjustment that Davis made, all the way back in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. In the below clip, he is lined up in zone, backpedals about 2 yards too far and gets beat when D.J. Moore makes his cut:

This isn’t a bad play necessarily. This did happen early in the game after all. He just takes a few steps too many before breaking on the route, which in the NFL leads to easy completions.

Here’s the same route, from the same game, only a few plays later:

Not only is this the same route. It’s the same formation, with the only difference being where Christian McCaffrey (#22) lines up. The timing is even similar as Cam Newton (#1) throws about 3 steps into the break.

The difference between the last play and this one is how Davis plays it. Instead of backpedaling those extra 2 yards, he knows the route is coming. He recognized the formation, saw the route develop, and broke on it early after getting beat just a few plays earlier.

Those 2 yards make a huge difference since he is able to beat him to the punch rather than just being there in time to make a tackle.

These sorts of in game adjustments are so promising to see especially since we’ve been scarred with the Mike Smith “bend but don’t break”style of defense where the same routes are completed over and over again.

CONCLUSION

So many wonderful things to see, not only from a statistical standpoint, but also the play by play standpoint. He’s clearly gaining confidence, experience, and accruing invaluable knowledge that will help him grow as a corner in the NFL.

Cornerback is one of the most difficult positions to play, and if Davis is able to build on the improvements of this season, he will be a solid one for years to come.

What do you think? Would you like to see this series continued with some other young secondary players? Let me know in the comments below.

Poll

Who should the next player be in this look at the improving secondary?

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    Jamel Dean
    (121 votes)
  • 28%
    Sean Murphy-Bunting
    (66 votes)
  • 6%
    Mike Edwards
    (16 votes)
  • 9%
    Jordan Whitehead
    (21 votes)
  • 3%
    None. Stop doing these.
    (8 votes)
232 votes total Vote Now

* According to Pro Football Reference