For those of you who haven’t seen the first entry into this series, we’ll be taking a look at the players who improved the most throughout the 2020 season that really helped take this team to the next level.
Next up is Sean Murphy-Bunting, the second year cornerback out of Central Michigan that may have one of the all-time great turnarounds between the regular season and playoffs.
Throughout most of the regular season, Murphy-Bunting was looked at as someone who should’ve been riding the pine as opposed to being a full-time starter. However, in the post-season, he looked like he could’ve been a Pro-Bowl selection.
While he was heavily improved in the postseason, I will say that there are still some areas of his game that aren’t as polished as they could be. The most notable of these areas is his general difficulty playing in zone coverage.
He can often get lost when playing in these zones, whether he’s playing deep, or covering the flats. Though, I won’t be too harsh about that here because a lot of Todd Bowles’ spot-drop zone coverage calls led to issues for all three of the main corners (who are all more comfortable in man anyway).
Outside of these issues in zone, his improvements in man coverage were quite extraordinary. I’m not sure if his poor play early on resulted from a confidence issue, or if there was an undisclosed injury, but in either case, the comparison is night and day.
His three interceptions in three consecutive playoff games speak volumes when looking at the value he brought to this team, and it is quite possible that without him, the Buccaneers may have been sent home early.
On top of these three highlight plays, his overall play was immensely improved from the regular season. But what exactly did he get better at? Well, let’s take a look.
Being more physical
Prior to the Bucs’ post-season push, it was evident that Murphy-Bunting was struggling mightily. Part of the reason for that, outside of the zone coverage scheme of course, was his lack of physicality at the line of scrimmage and downfield.
He would often just let his receivers go through untouched which made it so difficult for him to keep up with a route. Here’s an example of that from the Week 15 game against the Atlanta Falcons:
The Bucs look to be in man coverage here and the Falcons draw up some rub routes to free up the receivers going into the flat on both sides of the formation. Right as the play begins, Russell Gage (83) takes a jab step inside to free up space and Murphy-Bunting takes a wide lateral step to match that in case Gage decided to break inside.
Unfortunately for SMB, Gage cuts to the outside and beats him so quickly that the rub wasn’t even necessary for him to get open. It looks like SMB attempted to shoot his hands to slow down the route, but he wasn’t in position to do so and it ended up being an easy touchdown for Atlanta.
Now let’s take a look at a much better response to a similar route from the Divisional round against the New Orleans Saints:
The Bucs look to be in another man coverage look here and this time SMB is lined up against Michael Thomas (13) in the slot. While Murphy-Bunting was initially beat by Thomas’s release, he made up for it with the physicality that he was known for in college.
Instead of being left behind, he is able to use his hands to grab onto Thomas and get himself back into the play, which ultimately led to a huge interception.
Now let’s take a look at him using this physicality to out-leverage his receiver downfield:
The Bucs look to be in a Cover 2 Man look here with SMB in the slot. He does a great job of following the stem of the route; but his trouble is typically in losing the route once it breaks (which we’ll see in the next section in more detail).
However, instead of allowing Allen Lazard to cut inside and beat him to the ball, he puts his arm on Lazard’s inside shoulder and cuts inside for the interception. While Troy Aikman may look at this as holding, both of these guys were fighting for position and it ends up just being a great play by SMB.
Not getting beat on the release
The previous section might seem similar to this one; however, that was more concerned with his improvement in overall physicality downfield or if he got beat. In this section, we’ll be looking at how he changed his game to prevent getting beat in the first place.
Now this is an area that SMB has struggled with for the past two seasons and is something that was very concerning going into the playoffs. However, his vast improvement in footwork and press technique really helped him to overcome these issues.
Let’s look at another play from the Week 15 matchup against the Falcons:
Honestly this was just a poor all-around rep from Murphy-Bunting here. He starts off with a lateral step because he’s playing outside leverage, but the step itself is away from the receiver which makes it near impossible to engage.
The problem with taking that step away from the receiver when playing outside leverage is that if the receiver is releasing inside, SMB is going to have more trouble engaging with him and he’ll have a much easier time getting open.
If he would’ve taken a step towards the receiver as opposed to away, he would’ve been able to press the receiver and buy himself more time to flip his hips in the right direction. Instead, he gets beat and tries to play catch-up the entire play.
In this next play he does take a better first step, but he doesn’t engage the receiver at all, ultimately allowing him a free release:
Nelson Agholor (15) releases to the inside and flat out beats SMB with speed, primarily because he didn’t try to press him. Because he gets beat so quickly, he’s once again playing catch-up with his man instead of feeling the route all the way through, which leads to Agholor ending up wide open on the break.
Even though he has enough speed to follow and cover the stem of the route, he isn’t able to feel the route develop by getting his hands on Agholor since he gets beat so quickly. This is what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned that he often has difficulty once the route breaks.
While the initial lateral step isn’t necessarily bad on this one, it just shouldn’t be done in press position unless he intends to be more physical with his receiver. This is based on the fact that taking a lateral step makes it much more difficult to quickly flip your hips.
I will mention that playing in the slot leaves many corners in a tough position as their guy can break in either direction. However, if he wants to gauge the route with that lateral step and take time to process the direction, he has to slow the receiver down at the same time like he does here:
Notice that he is playing outside leverage again, but this time he takes that step inside and engages with his man. This helps him to gauge the release, slow down the receiver, and flip his hips in the right direction all at the same time.
As his guy begins breaking inside, he has his hands on his hips and is able to feel the direction he’s going. Since he was more physical at the line, he wasn’t initially beat and didn’t have to play catch-up which allowed him to stay in position through the entirety of the route.
This is about as lockdown as it gets and it’s really something we didn’t see prior to the playoff run. Because he isn’t getting beat quickly off of the line, he is able to feel the route all the way through which ends up leading to incomplete passes, or interceptions.
Despite the issues that Murphy-Bunting still has, he has definitely shown that he is still improving and that we haven’t seen his ceiling yet. He is only in his second year after-all, and we can’t forget the lack of an off-season that would’ve really helped him overcome these difficulties before the start of the season.
Murphy-Bunting’s greatest improvement overall was accomplished by simply using the physicality that we all knew he had in him. By being more physical, he was able to manage receivers that would beat him on the release in addition to those that would out-leverage him downfield.
On top of this, he was also vastly improved in matching the right level of physicality with the technique he used which helped him to not get beat as often as he did early on.
This change in processing and technique is something that we also saw out of Devin White and something that we can be optimistic about going forward for both of these players. But it doesn’t stop there as there are so many other players on this team that improved greatly over the season to help the Bucs win Super Bowl LV.
Now it’s your turn, please vote for who you’d like to see next on this series in the poll and don’t forget to tell us what you think in the comments below!
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Ronald Jones II
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