Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Secondary shuffle leaves Bucs defense backpedaling

Some things don't make sense. Billboards showing the wait time for emergency rooms. Why fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing. And the constant shakeup of players by coach Lovie Smith in the Bucs' secondary.

The Bucs have used five combinations of players in six games on the back end of their defense. Cornerback Johnthan Banks injured his knee at Houston in Week 2, so some of it was by necessity.

But flash back to the final seven games of 2014. The Bucs allowed 19.7 points per game with Banks and Alterraun Verner as the starting corners and Bradley McDougald at safety. That's the way the Bucs went through the offseason, training camp, preseason and Week 1.

Then came the opening-day loss to the Titans and the shuffling began. Now the Bucs are 31st in the NFL in points allowed at 29.8 a game. Opposing quarterbacks have a 110.6 passer rating, also next to last. Bottom-feeding quarterbacks such as the Texans' Ryan Mallet, the Jags' Blake Bortles and the Redskins' Kirk Cousins had career passing days against the Bucs.

The lack of continuity has led to poor communication, which has led to confusion, which has led to receivers running free in the end zone.

"No, it's not tinkering and it's not trying to find the right combination," Smith said. "It's playing guys that deserve to play and that's going to happen again. We didn't play great in the back end the entire time. I just don't think you can go on what happened last year. It's kind of what's happening right now. I wish it was as simple as put four guys and keep them there and everything will be fine. That's just not the case."

Yet opposing receivers are so alone in the secondary they must think their mouthwash has failed.

Take last week, for example.

Cornerback Tim Jennings, who started for a benched Verner in Week 2, was inactive Sunday at Washington. He did not appear on an injury report, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier suggested the 31-year-old might have been hurt.

"He's dealing with a few things that he's gotten better with because of the bye week physically," Frazier said. "We expect him to play well when we get him back out there."

With the Bucs leading 24-7 in the third quarter Sunday, the Redskins put receiver Ryan Grant in motion. Rookie cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, who had played one snap on defense before Sunday, followed Grant across the formation, indicating he was in man-to-man.

But when the ball was snapped, Adjei-Barimah inexplicably stopped mirroring Grant and jumped another receiver. Grant was left all alone for an easy touchdown.

"That's the downside," Frazier said. "If you are going to play some young guys … there's going to be some moments where he's just not where he needs to be."

Nobody has been more affected than Verner, who somehow fell into the doghouse by Week 2. The former Titan signed a five-year, $25.75 million contract as a free agent in 2014 as Smith's handpicked replacement for Darrelle Revis, who was released.

Verner had only two interceptions last season, but like the rest of the secondary, improved in the second half. Yet he was benched for Jennings and when Banks sprained his knee at Houston, Mike Jenkins, not Verner, took Banks' spot.

Verner has been moved to the nickel defensive back spot and is trying to learn a new position inside the numbers. On several occasions Sunday, he got lost in coverage.

"Every week it's another layer I'm peeling back trying to get better," Verner said. "I'm getting the experience of seeing it live, for better or worse, to get to that point."

Slant routes in the red zone, like the one caught for the winner last week, have been too easily yielded. "We've got to be inside and make it tough," Verner said. "They may make a play, but we can't afford to let them be wide open."

Today the Bucs face a Falcons offense that is one of the most explosive in the league with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and league rushing leader Devonta Freeman. It's anyone's guess who will defend them. But the Bucs better dial up the right combination — soon.

"You go into it in training camp with an idea of what you want to be, and as you go through training camp and into the season, you start realizing maybe this is a better mix and you have to be willing to make that adjustment," Frazier said. "So we've made some adjustments that we think will help us in the long run. But you may have to go through some things."

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