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Is the Bucs secondary ‘totally fixed,’ as Bruce Arians says?

Tampa Bay drafted three defensive backs and all of them have intercepted passes in practice
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting talks with reporters as he walks off the field after mandatory mini-camp on Wednesday at the AdventHealth Training Center. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Jun. 6
Updated Jun. 7

TAMPA — Totally fixed.

That’s what Bruce Arians says about the Bucs’ secondary, easily considered the worst part of a historically bad Tampa Bay defense last season that allowed an average of 29 points per game.

Four members of the secondary on that defense — Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead — collectively started 40 games and combined for zero interceptions.

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So, the Bucs addressed the problem in the draft, selecting cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and safety Mike Edwards.

They have yet to line up on the grass in a regular-season game against the Falcons’ Julio Jones or the Saints’ Michael Thomas.

Yet their coach says he has seen enough in a couple of minicamps and organized team activities to say the leaks have been plugged.

Problem solved. Where are we eating dinner?

“I think they’re really, really good,” Arians said. “With Carlton and Vernon, we knew we had two solid corners. Now we’ve got five solid corners. I think Ryan (Smith) came a long way. So, yeah, I think what was earmarked as a problem set back in January, that’s totally fixed. Let’s knock on wood they stay healthy.”

Here’s the weird thing: Arians could be right.

Oh, it may not show up immediately in the regular season. Consider that Hargreaves, who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury after only one game last season, is the sage veteran of the group despite having just turned 24 on Monday.

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As a rookie, Hargreaves led the league in passing yards allowed with more than 1,000 and had only one interception. He knows tough times are ahead.

“There’s going to be struggles,’’ Hargreaves said. “It’s not going to be perfect. … (The rookies have) got to get adjusted. It’s a fast game. It’s a different game. It’s a whole different game. It’s how fast can you get up to speed?

“I think that’s where we’re going to be successful, transitioning guys over. We’ve got great coaches. They believe in us. They trust us. They know what we can do, and they want us to be good. So that transition won’t be hard for them.’’

There are no official statistics for turnovers caused or interceptions made during the offseason. But unofficially, according to Dean, he and Murphy-Bunting are tied with three.

“Or he’s got me by one,’’ Dean said.

Edwards has several as well, including one interception he picked off with the ball an inch from the turf on a deflected pass and that would have been returned for a touchdown.

“Ninety-five percent of turnovers are coming from rookies in practice,’’ Arians said.

That might be a bad thing. Injuries the past two seasons have affected Hargreaves’ production, but his one career interception is not the number befitting a first-round draft pick. The Bucs hope a switch of defensive systems, to one that will rely more heavily on press man-to-man coverage, will benefit the skill set of players such as Hargreaves and Davis, who are holding down starting spots.

That all the players in the secondary are 25 or younger also has helped them bond a bit faster.

“It’s kind of a good thing, just not having an old head in the room, per se, with Vernon being the oldest guy that we have, but he has a young mind-set as well,’’ said Murphy-Bunting, who turns 22 on June 19.

“That’s a real high thing for (Arians) to say (about the defense being fixed). At the end of the day, we just have to perform the way he expects us to. Anybody can say anything, but you have to go out there and actually do it in order to back him up, and we’re all trying to back him up in that situation.’’

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles also likes what he sees of the young defensive backs and he’s not afraid to play them early.

“We know what they have,’’ Bowles said. “They just need experience. They need some experience in our system, and they need to play some games and get some games under their belt, and their talent will take care of the rest.’’

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Here’s what not fixed: the pass rush. Nothing helps a defensive back more than pressure on the quarterback, and Bowles is a master of blending an array of pressure packages with coverage.

But Jason Pierre-Paul, who led the team in sacks with 121/2 last season, won’t be available until October at the earliest due to a cervical fracture he suffered in a car accident May 2. Also, the Bucs let go Gerald McCoy, who not only recorded six sacks last season but led the team with 21 quarterback hits. He has been replaced by Ndamukong Suh, who had 41/2 sacks each of the past two seasons.

After that, the Bucs are banking on a transition from defensive end to outside linebacker by Carl Nassib and Noah Spence. They also signed Shaq Barrett as a free agent and drafted Iowa’s Anthony Nelson.

There are bound to be a few tough days ahead. Playing the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Panthers’ Cam Newton twice a year is a tough way to earn a living, especially while also going against some of the NFL’s top receivers.

But Arians suggests the defense gets a pretty good test every day by trying to cover Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and company.

But totally fixed? What makes him think so?

“The number of balls they’re touching,’’ Arians said. “The communication. I’m hearing a lot of communication. And like I said, we’ve got five corners, three or four safeties and we have three really solid (draft picks). I don’t (care) if they’re rookies. These guys can play.

“They’re getting their hands on a lot of balls, doing things that veterans do because they listen and they’re smart. And the veterans are helping them out, and they’ve gotten very good coaching.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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