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When the going gets tough, the Bucs defense gets burned

The Bucs have already blown a fourth-quarter lead in three games this season, thanks to a secondary that is giving up yardage at an alarming rate in the final minutes of games.

TAMPA — Call them young. Call them intriguing. Just don’t call them dependable.

Say they have potential. Say they are emerging. Just don’t say they are reliable.

This is the sad circumstance of all the new faces on Tampa Bay’s revamped defense. Every time you think they are turning a corner, you realize they are merely going in circles. They play well for a series, a quarter, a half, but eventually they stumble and fall right on top of your fondest hopes.

An excellent first half against Tennessee turned into a Ryan Tannehill fourth-quarter comeback. A solid first half against the Giants gave way to a game-winning drive directed by Daniel Jones. Maybe you can swallow and accept that against a Patrick Mahomes or a Tom Brady, but Tannehill and Jones?

The Bucs have had a lead in the fourth quarter of five games. They have only won two.

“What can we do better, how can we finish the last five minutes of games?’’ head coach Bruce Arians asked rhetorically this week. “Because the last five minutes of games tells the whole season.’’

Arians is not just venting. When the scoreboard starts ticking down and the crowd starts growing louder, the Bucs defense has typically gone missing. Oh, there was a fourth-down stop against the Panthers when Cam Newton was playing on one leg. And there was a huge sack and forced fumble by Shaquil Barrett against the Rams.

But there have also been enough third-down completions and missed tackles and penalties to ruin the exploits of a fairly decent Tampa Bay offense.

“It’s all mental. You have to be locked in mentally,’’ said Barrett. “You have to see everything you need to see and be sure you’re communicating with everyone around you. We make too many mistakes in the fourth quarter and, as you can see, it’s hurt us.’’

Players in the locker room say it is not a problem of youth, but it’s either that or a serious miscalculation of talent. Tampa Bay’s secondary is jammed full of rookies and second-year players, and most of the fourth-quarter meltdowns can be traced back to the passing game.

When you look at the rest of the NFL, you’ll see that most pass defenses have a harder time in the first half of games. Presumably, that’s because offenses aren’t in desperate pass situations with time running out. The passer rating for the NFL is 94.26 in the first half, and drops down to 90.83 in the second half.

The Bucs go in the opposite direction.

Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 93.53 against Tampa Bay in the first half, which is slightly better than average. But in the second half and overtime — when a defense with a lead should have the advantage — quarterbacks have a passer rating of 106.39 against the Bucs.

Not surprisingly, the Bucs are giving up 9.6 points per game in the fourth quarter which is 30th in the NFL.

“Basically, it comes down to who wants it more in the last five minutes,’’ said linebacker Kevin Minter. “What are you going to do when you’re tired? How are you going to respond when you’re being hit in the mouth? You need to finish this game. You’ve been through 11 rounds already, who is going to get the knockout in the 12th?’’

You could make an argument that the defensive backs are not alone in this dilemma. Linebacker Devin White had a critical pass interference penalty and the front seven sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson only one time in 29 pass attempts in the second half and overtime in the last game.

For the season, the defense’s ratio of sacks is slightly higher in the second half but it’s still not enough considering Tampa Bay’s propensity to blitz and leave young defenders in single coverage.

“We can play well for spurts, and then there will be a spurt where we go haywire and they make plays on us,’’ said defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. “We’ve got to be more experienced in that regard and we’ve got to play the last quarter like we play the first three quarters.’’

It’s not like it’s going to get any easier this month. The Bucs face No. 1 pick Kyler Murray at quarterback this week against Arizona and then seen potential Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in the next two games.

And the learning curve will be steep for rookie Jamel Dean, who gave up three touchdowns last week, and starts again for the injured Carlton Davis at cornerback.

“It’s not just the young guys, it’s all of us,’’ Barrett said. “Some of us may have made more mistakes than others, but we’re all responsible for this.’’

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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