A turnaround is coming.
Granted, the Buccaneers defense can’t get much worse than it was last season, when it allowed quarterbacks to complete 72.5 percent of their passes and post a 110.9 passer rating. Both of which were the second highest marks of all time. It won’t do that again. Probably.
Regression to the mean isn’t the only reason to feel hopeful. Tampa Bay also should benefit from an infusion of talent — it spent its first five draft picks on defenders — and the introduction of a new scheme.
Count former Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham among the believers in coordinator Todd Bowles’ aggressive system.
“I’ve been in this scheme,” Abraham told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’ve seen how it’s done. I’ve seen the way it has been coached.”
“He doesn’t sit back.”
Didn’t Abraham play in Tony Dungy’s and Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 system? He did indeed, from 1996 to 2001.
More recently, though, he was an assistant coach on a defense that adopted Bowles’ system and saw immediate results — the Alliance of American Football’s Orlando Apollos. Before the AAF suspended operations in April, the Apollos won seven of their eight games and held opponents to 17 points per game, the second fewest. The defensive coordinator was Bob Sanders, the linebackers coach for Bruce Arians’ Cardinals teams from 2015 to 2017.
One of the staples of a Bowles defense is its flexibility, Abraham said.
“It looks like something, but when the ball is snapped, it’s something different,” he said. “It’s always changing. You can have one call in this defensive scheme, and it can be played five different ways. It takes a minute before the offense figures it out.”
Though the Bucs talk about tailoring the defense to their players’ strengths, the scheme is only as good as the players on the roster.
“It does call for some very good players, especially in the secondary,” Abraham said. “You have to have corners that can play press and hold up because that’s what this scheme had in Arizona. The safeties in this scheme have to have flexibility. They have to cover receivers, slot receivers; they have to be able to play in the middle.”
The Times met with Abraham to discuss Bowles’ defense and, more specifically, how the team’s rookie defensive backs — Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards — will fit in it. We watched cutups from their final college seasons and asked Abraham to identify things they might need to work on. Here are his impressions:
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Sean Murphy-Bunting, cornerback
Height and weight: 6-0, 195 pounds
Drafted: Second round, 39th overall
College: Central Michigan
Game watched: vs. Kentucky, Sept. 1
When we talk about press coverage, we tend to think of cornerbacks who are aggressive at the line of scrimmage. We imagine them jabbing receivers and forcing them off their routes. The key to good press coverage, however, is patience. That means having the discipline to not react to every little move a receiver makes. And Murphy-Bunting has it.
“You see some corners, as soon as the receiver releases, they take off, open up and just go, as opposed to sitting in there, having patience and waiting, and waiting to get hands on him, waiting to mirror him,” Abraham said. “He does a decent job of keeping his hips square and waiting on a receiver, being patient, getting hands on him and riding him.”
(In the clips below, watch for the pink arrow.)
It’s when cornerbacks aren’t patient — when they’re overaggressive or worry about getting beat — that they make mistakes.
“It doesn’t seem like he worries about that,” Abraham said. “It seems like he’ll sit there, he’ll compete, look to mirror the receiver. He’s ready to fight. Some corners won’t be ready to fight. They’ll be ready to run.”
On occasion, though, Murphy-Bunting’s patience backfires and receivers punch him in the mouth.
Murphy-Bunting’s presnap stance could use some work, particularly when he’s playing off the line of scrimmage.
“When he plays off, he tends to play high, doesn’t bend his knees,” Abraham said. “When you’re standing with your knees locked, if you don’t stand in a good athletic position, it’s hard to move. This is a pet peeve for some coaches. You’ll hear a lot of old-school coaches, ‘Bend your knees! You’ve got to be down in a stance!’”
Central Michigan is hardly known as DBU — including Murphy-Bunting, the school has produced four defensive back draft picks since 1985 — but it’s Murphy-Bunting’s skill and natural ability that matter, not where he played football in college.
“I can see why they drafted the kid,” Abraham said. “You see some traits in him that you like, that he does naturally. He’s going to do the same thing at this level. He’s not going to change.”
• • •
Jamel Dean, cornerback
Height and weight: 6-1, 206 pounds
Drafted: Third round, 94th overall
Games watched: LSU, Sept. 15, and Texas A&M, Nov. 3
Dean has the physical attributes (he’s tall for a cornerback and ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the combine) that NFL scouts drool over, but he’s not as far along technique-wise as Murphy-Bunting, Abraham said.
“He needs to get his hands up in press coverage,” he said. “His hands are too low. You see with corners a lot when they’re in press man, they have their hands down by their knees. Their hands need to be up before the snap. A boxer doesn’t box with his hands down, or he’s going to get knocked out. At least have them chest level where you can punch and use them.”
Though he has long speed, Dean might not have the flexibility to stay with twitchier receivers.
“He does okay if the receiver doesn’t give him a move,” Abraham said.
“If the receiver gives him a double move or a double release, he doesn’t seem to have the hips to move with him. If it’s a straight release, he can be physical. If the receiver has any wiggle to him, it looks like he has trouble.”
Because he struggles to change direction, he sometimes resorts to grabbing receivers.
“I call it chase mode,” Abraham said. “He was in chase mode right away on that. Instead of covering him, he’s just chasing him. You don’t want to be a chase corner.”
• • •
Mike Edwards, safety
Height and weight: 5-10, 205 pounds
Drafted: Third round, 99th overall
Game watched: Georgia, Nov. 3
Edwards is a perfect fit for Bowles’ scheme, Abraham said.
“That free safety is a guy they use to cut routes,” he said. “So if you have an outside receiver running an over route, they’ll cut it a lot, so the free safety will get that guy and the corner will peel off, so they do that a lot with the free safety in this system. That’s why they like the free safeties to be more athletic and cover guys.”
Edwards is a solid tackler, though sometimes he can get too aggressive and sell out trying to make the big hit, like he did against Georgia last season. His whiff resulted in a 20-yard touchdown run, though he wasn’t the only Kentucky player who missed a tackle on that play.
Watch Edwards and it’s impossible to miss his enthusiasm.
“He plays hard,” Abraham said. “It seems like he loves to play, which is good. He’s bouncing around. Change of direction is good. Good movement. Good range as well, too. I can see him contributing soon.”
• • •
Like anything, a defensive rebuild takes time. Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Edwards are going to struggle. It’s a faster game. But their inexperience isn’t the disadvantage that it might seem to be.
“The good thing about the young players is that you don’t have a lot of bad habits to break,” Abraham said. “It’s not like they’ve been in 10 other schemes already.”
Bowles isn’t going to overwhelm them. He’ll teach base concepts during training camp, and as the preseason and season progresses, he’ll add new wrinkles.
“They’re going to get it taught, and it’s going to be taught very well,” Abraham said. “Don’t be surprised to see the Tampa defense playing very well.”
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.