When did you realize the Buccaneers needed an overhaul on defense?
Week 3 when the Bucs had 12 defenders on the field and still couldn’t stop Case Keenum from connecting with Stefon Diggs for a 59-yard touchdown? Or Week 6 when Carson Palmer found Larry Fitzgerald wide open in the end zone? How about Week 7 when Tyrod Taylor hit Deonte Thompson for a 44-yard gain?
The moment for me: Week 12 against the Falcons. Early second quarter. Mohamed Sanu — the receiver Mohamed Sanu! — bobbled the snap … and still threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones.
It was tough to watch. And not just because it was bad football. The Bucs were trying. They just didn’t have any answers. They needed wholesale changes, and those don’t happen in October and November. They happen in March and April, during free agency and the draft.
The Bucs’ work this offseason in rebuilding their defensive line has been well documented. But given Brent Grimes’ age (he turns 35 next month) and Vernon Hargreaves’ inconsistency, the secondary needed an infusion of talent, too. That help came via the draft, with the Bucs taking cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round and safety Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round.
Can the Bucs’ new defensive backs step in and slow opponents’ passing attacks? It’s difficult to project defensive backs because their transition from college to the NFL is especially difficult. At the college level, they can get by with talent alone, but in the NFL, the tempo is faster and there’s more to process. Proper technique and good vision are essential.
I’m no scout, so I reached out to someone who knows what Stewart, Davis and Whitehead will be up against this season. That person: former Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham. Abraham played for the Bucs from 1996 to 2001 and for the Jets from 2002 to 2004. In his nine-year career, he intercepted 38 passes. He’s now the cornerbacks coach at Illinois under head coach Lovie Smith.
After Abraham and I watched television cutups of Stewart, Davis and Whitehead, I asked him about defensive-back technique and what he thought the incoming rookies might need to work on to succeed in the NFL. Here are some highlights from our conversation. Rather than interpreting them as complete evaluations, think of them as things to watch.
M.J. Stewart, cornerback
Height and weight: 5-11, 200 pounds
Drafted: Second round, 53rd overall
College: North Carolina
Game watched: vs. Stanford, Sun Bowl, Dec. 30, 2016
Note Stewart’s stance before the snap and then his stance as the quarterback drops back.
Abraham: “Stance and starts are the first thing we (coaches) talk about. You’ve got to be in a great stance to get off to a great start. That’s a bad stance. His feet are too far apart. The first thing you’re going to do is bring them together anyway. Why not start like that?”
• • •
While it’s important for a cornerback to feel comfortable in his stance, he should keep his feet underneath him at all times, Abraham said. Nose over toes. Throughout the game against Stanford, Stewart stood with one foot forward and one back.
Abraham: “You have to push off with your front foot, so if your feet are spread apart, there’s no way you’re going to be able to push off with your front foot. Once your feet get outside, in order to balance yourself up, you’ve got to bring them back together. It’s wasted steps.”
• • •
Abraham: “See how he stays still. He’s stationary. You’ve got to move your feet. He’s sitting flat-footed right now. You’ve got to get your feet ready to go. Not bad once he makes contact, but he doesn’t have active feet.”
• • •
In his three seasons at North Carolina, Stewart was most effective when pressing receivers near the line of scrimmage. But on this third and 4, he fails to disrupt the receiver.
Abraham: “He doesn’t move his feet, and look where his eyes are. His helmet right now is looking in at the quarterback. If he’s in man-to-man, especially in the slot position, he needs to be looking more at his guy, especially if he’s press. If he’s off, you can be taught to look at the quarterback initially. … He has no chance to get into proper position to delay this guy from getting upfield.”
Carlton Davis, cornerback
Height and weight: 6-1, 206 pounds
Drafted: Second round, 63rd overall
Game watched: vs. Georgia, Nov. 11, 2017
It’s easy to see why the Bucs like Davis. He’s tall and long and is physical, in coverage and in run support. The area where he has the most room for growth is his coverage off the line of scrimmage. On this play, he’s up near the receiver but doesn’t try to reroute him. For 10 to 12 yards, he’s in good position, matching the receiver stride-for-stride. Then Davis suddenly loses his balance. What happened? The receiver used a subtle head fake.
Abraham: “What I always try to tell my guys is you can’t overreact to movements of receivers because if you do, you’re going to be chasing ghosts all the time. As soon as they give you a stick foot or a head fake, you’re chasing. … Receivers are taught this at the top of their routes. They’re taught to give you something, whether it’s a head fake, whether it’s arm pumping, whether it’s a stick foot, where they jab step. As a defensive back, if you react to all of those, you’re going to be in trouble. … (The receiver is running) full speed. You’ve got to be able to feel he’s full speed, and anything he gives you is just to kind of knock you off, just to move you a little bit for him to get an advantage.”
• • •
While Davis intercepted only four passes in three seasons at Auburn, he made receivers work to catch the ball. Last season, he allowed less than half of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught. On this third-and-8 pass, however, he loses the battle at the catch point.
Abraham: “I would give the DB the benefit of the doubt if he was 5-10. The fact that he’s 6-1, this can’t happen. He has to be able to find the ball, and if he’s going to struggle with that, he’s going to struggle in the league. Quarterbacks are going to put it on these receivers where they can turn and catch it and do what they need to do. He can’t allow the receiver to body him and get back in position to catch the ball. It can’t happen, period, but especially when you’re 6-1 and you have size just like a receiver.”
• • •
Like Stewart, Davis is going to need to clean up his footwork.
Abraham: “Every time he does press, he hops forward, probably a habit of his. I don’t know what he was being taught, but for me, that’s like a false step. When you hop forward, it puts you on your heels automatically. Because you came forward, now you have to go back. Something that small can be the difference between you being in the proper position to make plays.”
Jordan Whitehead, safety
Height and weight: 5-10, 198 pounds
Drafted: Fourth round, 117th overall
Game watched: vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 18, 2017
On this play, Virginia Tech’s receivers switch vertical routes, momentarily confusing Whitehead.
Abraham: “He should take the inside guy. (The cornerback) should take the outside guy. But he didn’t get the memo. He was running with the outside guy. Better throw, that’s a touchdown.”
• • •
While the quarterback keeps the ball and runs it in for the score, Abraham sees a flaw in Whitehead’s technique that opponents in the NFL could exploit on pass plays.
Abraham: “You can’t back up in the end zone. All the receiver’s going to do is sit there on the goal line. They’re going to throw it to him, and he’s going to catch it and fall in.”
• • •
On this second and 4, Pittsburgh lines up in a Cover 4 zone defense (also called “Quarters”). Cover 4 features four deep defenders and three underneath defenders. The cornerbacks are responsible for the deep zones on the outside; the safeties are responsible for the deep zones in the middle. If the slot receiver runs a shallow route, the safety, free of having to cover the deep middle, should help the cornerback on the outside.
Abraham: “I’m not sure how they’re taught to play this, but to me Whitehead should be coming downhill. He’s taking the wrong angle. If this is some version of Cover 4, which is what it looks like, the (slot) receiver ran inside so Whitehead should sit and undercut anything that the (outside) receiver does.”
• • •
Out of the three defensive backs the Bucs drafted, Whitehead shows the most promise, Abraham said, noting his quick burst and powerful tackling.
Abraham: “He moves pretty well. He has some suddenness and quick twitch to him. You can see he moves with a sense of urgency. Came up, had some good hits. He’s physical.”
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.