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With Bucs defense providing more questions than answers, we try to help

Tampa Bay’s D has improved, but it’s still struggling. Is the issue scheme or talent?
The Bucs need improved play from its secondary, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) [BUTCH DILL  |  AP]
The Bucs need improved play from its secondary, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) [BUTCH DILL | AP]
Published Oct. 8, 2019
Updated Oct. 8, 2019

Bucs coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles have provided Tampa Bay fans much to love about the team’s defense.

It’s aggressive. It creates turnovers. It calls on players to act instead of react. Press coverage. Blitz packages. And a run-stopping mentality that has the Bucs ranked second in the NFL in rushing defense. Simply put, it’s better than the unit that ranked 31st in the league.

It’s still not great, however. The Bucs defense ranks 26th, allowing 393.4 yards per game. It’s 29th in points allowed per game (29.6) and last in passing defense (323.6 yards). Last week, it gave up too many big plays to New Orleans. So, we wonder what’s the problem? Is Bowles a mad genius who doesn’t have enough playmakers to get it done? Or is the 3-4 a scheme that produces flashes but can’t consistently stop top-notch offenses.

Is the issue scheme or talent? We convene a roundtable to get answers.

It’s the Jimmys and Joes, not the X’s and O’s

Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer @NFLStroud: There are a lot of schemes that work in the NFL. Todd Bowles has a sound system and has had lots of success with it. However, the Bucs have allowed 32, 40 and 34 points in the past three games. Some of that came as the result of pick sixes. But when you are allowing more points than the historically bad defense you were hired to improve, that’s not a good thing. No way else to put this. Dirk Koetter and his staff could be 2-3. There needs to be improvement, real improvement, on third down to get the defense off the field. The Bucs are No. 2 vs the run. That’s no small feat. It’s the way they are built with two 300-pound men in the middle in Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. But neither can reach the quarterback. They have combined for zero sacks. In fact, Shaquil Barrett has nine of the 11 sacks for the Bucs this season. Carl Nassib was a good story a year ago but he has one sack in five games. Finally, Vernon Hargreaves has made two impactful plays this season. But he’s been on the wrong end of more than that. Carlton Davis still is looking for his first career interception. Mike Edwards and Jordan Whitehead are green but growing. Michael Thomas was 9-for-9 in man coverage in Sunday’s loss to the Saints. That’s a bad scheme. You can’t allow a game-wrecker to destroy the defense. But with no pressure on the QB, Teddy Bridgewater played like Drew Brees. The Bucs need to adapt to what little talent they have on defense or this will be a lost cause by Halloween.

Can New Orleans be an outlier?

Eduardo A. Encina, Bucs/pro sports enterprise writer, @EddieintheYard: The numbers don’t look good, and in terms of points allowed, the Bucs defense is really no better than the disaster of a unit that took the field last season. But it’s not that simple. Teddy Bridgewater had an outstanding game last week, and the Bucs defense did not. Bridgewater’s game ranked as the third best this season by any quarterback, according to ESPN’s quarterback rating statistic, which takes situational success — like third down and red zone conversions — into play more than the typical quarterback rating system. But before Sunday’s game, the Bucs defense was a top-10 defense on stopping teams on third down. It’s a staple of the Todd Bowles defense, that the unit may give up yardage, but it makes big plays when it needs to. Those were definitely absent on Sunday, but when you look at this season as a whole, the defense has been a bend-but-don’t-break unit that has the ability to make big plays when it needs to, whether it’s the fourth-down stop at Carolina or creating four turnovers in Los Angeles. Having said that, there’s a lot to be fixed. Pressure comes from all over in the Bowles system, but where is it? The Bucs need more pressure on the quarterback from players not named Shaquil Barrett. The pressure inside from Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, which contributed to Barrett’s success, needs to start getting to the quarterback, as does opposite edge rusher Carl Nassib. When’s the last time we saw an extra pass rusher get to the quarterback? Keep in mind, the Bucs secondary is young. They’re learning on the fly, there’s no question about that. They have to get better, and whether it’s veteran Vernon Hargreaves or second-round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting, they have to learn from their mistakes.

It’s a process

Thomas Bassinger, sports data reporter, @tometrics: No doubt, the Bucs are one of the worst pass coverage teams in the NFL. You’d expect rookies to struggle, but weren’t we supposed to see a brand new Vernon Hargreaves in Todd Bowles’ scheme? Instead, the cornerback has been the secondary’s greatest liability. He’s had four brutal games in a row. Quarterbacks this season have completed nearly 80 percent of their passes into his coverage and posted a 127.7 passer rating when targeting him. He has allowed more receiving yards than any other defensive back except the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore. More than scheme and talent, the issue with this secondary might be expectations, and the Bucs are to blame for that. Bruce Arians’ comment during the offseason that the team had fixed the back end of its defense was an obvious overstatement. Tampa Bay’s issues couldn’t be solved in a training camp and five games. There’s some promise here — Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards have shown flashes — but this is more of a process than the Bucs have led on. It’s troubling that we’ve seen so little of second-round draft pick Sean Murphy-Bunting.

Better than a soft concoction made with Nilla Wafers

Martin Fennelly, columnist @mjfennelly: Teams now have this defense on tape, five games of it, and they’re going to pick out its gaping weaknesses. All those draft picks or not, the stockpiled talent is questionable and thin, including up front, where the lack of a proper rotation of players really hurts and puts a crimp in the rush. And now Shaq Barrett will be double-teamed, so there goes the pass rush. But at least Todd Bowles and this defense is going for it, which beats former coordinator Mike Smith’s no blitz vanilla pudding. Yes, the Bucs are giving up a lot of points, a lot of yards, but they also force turnovers and come up with big plays. I think this defense is actually improved. It has sold out to stop the run, and it has. True, draft pick Vita Vea doesn’t mean as much as shutdown corner or edge rusher would have, but the Bucs are what they are, and there is no magic name out there worth spending money on, as if they have any, or draft picks. There is no quick fix to be made midstream. You go with what you have and savor little steps. If you want to lay blame somewhere, maybe point to those recent drafts where they passed on what have become true defensive stars to, say, get a kicker. But, yes, the Bucs have holes on defense. Shocking. Want to go back and watch 12-yard passes uncontested, or 70-perecnt completion rates? 31 points against New Orleans does not constitute a disaster. These guys contest most everything at least. I’ll take fever and fury, even with the helmet-to-helmet acid runoff. With what they have, you take some chances, you get burned, but you get some turnovers, some big plays. Against good offenses, you’re going to give up things.

Wanted: Playmakers. Apply during the 2020 draft

Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor, @hoop4you: It’s the talent. In some instances, the Bucs are trying to fit round pegs into square holes (see Nassib, Carl). He may have been better suited for the 4-3. In other instances, the players at the staff’s disposal have failed to fulfill their potential (see Hargreaves, Vernon). The first-round pick has made some plays, but need to be doing more. But Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles surely recognize they can’t lean on that as an excuse while they wait for the 2020 draft and free agency. The coaching and tutelage that began in the off-season must continue in London, during off weeks and in preparation for Tennessee on Oct. 26. Someone has to start playing better. Carlton Davis has shown improvement. M.J. Stewart provides flashes. How about it, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards and Sean Murphy-Bunting? Devin White, if that knee feels better show us what you got. Hey Jason Pierre-Paul, you’ll be welcomed back, even at 75 percent. Can someone step up and save the season? Please?


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