Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs seek answers for poor pass defense

TAMPA — As the Bucs checked into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the French Quarter last week to play the Saints, suspended starting cornerback Eric Wright was excited about spending the weekend with his wife in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Wright — serving the final game of a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy (resulting, he said, from taking Adderall) — was eager to share his plans with his 21,903 followers on Twitter at @EWrighteous21: "Sometimes you just need a change of pace … Taking @LaTanyaWright to Laguna for the weekend … Spa weekend, shopping and good food #RelaxMode."

A day later, what was left of the Bucs secondary also appeared to be in RelaxMode, allowing Drew Brees to pass for 307 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-0 rout

The Bucs defense, last in the NFL against the pass, has been so obliterated, there is a good chance the organization will need to go on a shopping spree of its own for cornerbacks in free agency and the draft.

"It's definitely frustrating. It's not discouraging," said first-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheri­dan, whose unit has allowed 310.6 passing yards per game. "Our guys don't get discouraged. But it's definitely frustrating because it's easy yardage.

"If you talk to our defensive line, they'll tell you we need to rush better. And if you talk to the back end guys, they'll tell you they need to cover better. And when the linebackers both blitz, we've got to finish our blitzes better."

The Bucs have allowed 66 passes of 20 yards or more this season, fewer than only New England's 68. The Patriots, however, began to stop the bombardment after trading a 2013 fourth-round pick to Tampa Bay for cornerback Aqib Talib in November — while he was serving a four-game suspension of his own.

To put things into perspective: In 2011, the Bucs allowed 49 passes of 20 yards or more — and set the franchise record for points allowed with 494. (This season, they are on pace to allow 399.)

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford identified the problem with the Bucs pass defense during a conference call last week.

"They're not afraid to blitz," he said. "They probably bring more secondary pressure than any team we've seen all year."

The result?

"Those guys are left one on one quite a bit on the outside," Bradford said.

It's easy to cite the suspensions of Talib and Wright — and eventual trade of Talib — for why the pass defense has struggled. But both were part of the 510-yard day by the Giants' Eli Manning, who overcame a 14-point deficit at the Meadowlands by throwing three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

The Bucs have used five different starters at cornerback this season, including undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson and Danny Gorrer, who already had been with five teams before he was claimed off waivers from the Seahawks on Oct. 31.

Sheridan heaps a lot of the blame on the lack of a pass rush. Tampa Bay is tied for 28th in sacks with 25, including nine by end Michael Bennett. In his only other season as a coordinator, the Giants in 2009, Sheridan's defense finished 30th in points allowed at 26.7 per game.

"It's very easy to identify the big passes and say, 'Well, that's on the back end,' " Sheridan said. "But I think if you talked to our front guys, they would say we need to be more effective pressuring the quarterback. Not that you're going to get sacks. Sacks are few and far between in this league because people protect and they get rid of the ball and are not going to let their quarterback get beat up.

"We have some talented defensive linemen. And along with the pressures that we run, we haven't gotten as much mileage as you could have. You've got to affect the quarterback, and it doesn't mean getting sacks. But if they're comfortable back there, the skill level is so good that it makes it very difficult because he'll just throw to the guys (who are) open."

Even more confounding is the Bucs rank first against the run at 83.3 yards per game. That should lead to obvious passing situations and make things easier. But it hasn't translated into sacks or pressures.

"If you're rushing four guys 15 to 20 snaps in a game, you're talking about three or four of those times you have to at least make quarterback hits," Sheridan said. "There were a lot of weeks we hadn't had that."

Coach Greg Schiano remains confident the Bucs will stop the long passes. Wright returns from his suspension Monday — if only for a change of pace.

"We have good players. So how do we get them to do it consistently?" he said. "We have to coach better. We have to help them more. It will happen."

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