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Weak secondary costing Tampa Bay Buccaneers in playoff bid

TAMPA

At the opposing quarterback's initial step backward, you can smell the smoke.

As he cocks his arm and stares downfield, you can see the spark.

Then he throws the ball and, just like always, an entire secondary bursts into flame. All over again. As sure as Duraflame.

Play after play, game after game, the Bucs secondary continues to burn. By now, you wonder why other teams even try to run. Against the Bucs defensive backs, every pass seems like it will be a completion, and every quarterback looks as if he is doing a Peyton Manning impression.

Ah, the defensive backs of the Bucs. Call them the Briquettes, because every now and then they are lit up like a Sunday barbecue.

In the grand plan to improve the Bucs, this needs to be the next renovation. If the Bucs are going to win big games against elite quarterbacks, they have to make the forward pass a little more difficult for their opponents.

Otherwise, they are not playing football; they are playing chase.

And someone needs to remember the asbestos shoulder pads.

More than any other, the reason the Bucs lost a 24-23 game to the Falcons on Sunday was they could not add more stress to Matt Ryan's afternoon. The quarterback had one of those easy afternoons when he seemed so unhurried, he might as well have been throwing darts.

Ryan completed his first 10 passes, and nine of his final 10. For the afternoon, he hit 26 of 32 — and to be honest, he should get yelled out for some of the six incompletions — for 353 yards. That's a completion percentage of 81.3, his best of the season.

Around the Bucs, they call that "par."

So it goes. In 11 games, seven opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 300 yards or more, and three others have thrown for at least 250. Then there was the game against Brady Quinn of the Chiefs, whom the Bucs didn't schedule nearly often enough.

It hardly bears repeating, but yes, the Bucs are better. The Falcons noticed that, too. But after a while, close doesn't count and better doesn't help. One more play out of the secondary, maybe two, and this game might have been won.

Part of the struggles in defending the pass, of course, is circumstance. With Eric Wright hurt and Aqib Talib traded, the Bucs are down to E.J. Biggers (a seventh-round pick) and Leonard Johnson (an undrafted rookie) as their starters. Biggers was making his seventh start of the season and his 19th overall; Johnson his second start of his career.

"I can't make an excuse for us giving up yards," said Johnson, a former Largo High standout. "We need to correct the small stuff, go back and get back to it."

"I don't think of us as young anymore," Biggers said. "We just have to make more plays."

Frankly, Roddy White and Julio Jones are supposed to toast cornerbacks that young. It's a lot to ask of a seventh-round pick and an undrafted rookie to cover them.

Still, 353 yards?

"Well, 80 of it is in one play," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "You don't give up the big play like that monster play. It's against a very good quarterback. You have to hang in there. But we did give it up, and therein lies the issue. That's been a little bit of our Achilles' heel. We'll get it corrected, and we'll keep getting better at it. It just didn't happen today."

Actually, it hasn't happened on a lot of days. That's why the Bucs are last in the NFL in pass defense. Most games, the secondary looks as if it is standing on loose ground at the edge of the cliff. It seems as if the goal is to hang on until it can make a big play of its own (such as the plays against Oakland and San Diego in the late going).

You wonder, however. The Bucs' scheme is so intent on stopping the run, could they be leaving themselves vulnerable?

"We play our safeties back more than we play them up," Schiano said. "But when we play single high, our cornerbacks have to be able to play man coverage."

Still, there have been so many chunk plays by opposing teams. The Falcons had four plays of 20-plus yards Sunday, running the total against the Bucs to 51 (near the bottom of the league) for the year. They have now given up 10 plays of 40 or more yards.

Blame the injuries. Blame the personnel. Blame the scheme. Blame the pass rush. The bottom line is the secondary has to be better. The NFL is a passing league, and therefore, it is a survive-the-passer league. It's hard to imagine the Bucs making a run at the NFC wild card if they continue to give up 316 yards through the air every week.

In other words, the secondary has to put out the flame before the season burns out of control.

Either that, or someone should bring marshmallows.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM the Fan.

Buccaneers rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson hits the turf after failing to bring down Falcons receiver Julio Jones during an 80-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Buccaneers rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson hits the turf after failing to bring down Falcons receiver Julio Jones during an 80-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.

Weak secondary costing Tampa Bay Buccaneers in playoff bid 11/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 10:18am]

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