Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Bucs

The Bucs’ desperate quest for a pass defense continues

John Romano: Could Sean Murphy-Bunting and the young Bucs finally be the answer?
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) is part of a young core of defensive backs the Bucs hope will solve their long-running pass defense problems. [MONICA HERNDON  |  Times]
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) is part of a young core of defensive backs the Bucs hope will solve their long-running pass defense problems. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 14
Updated Nov. 14

TAMPA — As succession plans go, this one has taken a while to solidify.

For instance, when he took off his Buccaneers uniform for the final time, Ronde Barber’s future replacement was too young to even have a driver’s license. And Aqib Talib’s eventual successor was still a few years away from his senior prom when the Bucs dealt Talib to New England.

You might say the search for cornerbacks in Tampa Bay has been years, and about 35,000 passing yards, in the making.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Since 2011, the Bucs have given up more passing yards (35,336) and a higher opponent’s passer rating (96.9) than any team in the NFL. The only thing keeping them from the Triple Crown of gosh-awful pass defense is Oakland surrendering a half-dozen more touchdowns (257 to 251) through the air.

Not that Tampa Bay hasn’t been looking for solutions.

During the past four years, the Bucs have used one first-round pick, four second-round, two third-round and two fourth-round picks on defensive backs. And if you want to go as far back as Barber’s retirement, there was the first- and fourth-round picks they gave up for one year of Darrelle Revis, and the free-agent money spent on the final seasons of Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner’s careers.

So yes, good morning, Sean Murphy-Bunting.

And hello, Jamel Dean.

We’ve been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for you.

The new-look Tampa Bay secondary will be on display this weekend against future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints. The likely starting lineup will include three rookies (Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Mike Edwards) and one second-year player (Jordan Whitehead). All four are 23 or younger.

Obviously, that’s not ideal. On the other hand, at least it’s a new direction.

For far too long, the Bucs have been running in circles in the secondary. Veterans have come and gone. Rookies have fizzled out. The latest departure came Tuesday when former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves was sent packing before his $9 million salary in 2020 could become a reality.

“It was shocking,’’ said rookie corner Mazzi Wilkins, who was promoted from the practice squad to replace Hargreaves. “But it’s part of the business.’’

Every other meeting room at the AdventHealth Training Center has at least had the pretense of stability. Jameis Winston has been the quarterback for five years. Mike Evans has been a dependable target since 2014. Demar Dotson and Donovan Smith have been bookend tackles for years, and Lavonte David has been knocking down ballcarriers seemingly forever.

The defensive backs room?

It’s Tampa Bay’s least exclusive Airbnb.

Cornerbacks come and go. Safeties are just passing through. The Bucs have played 105 games since Barber retired, and no defensive back has had a starting job more than 40 percent of the time since then. Only a small handful have even started 30 of those games.

Other than quarterback, there may not be a more noticeable position on the field. It’s often one-on-one, it’s often in the open field, and it’s occasionally the turning point in the game.

“You play cornerback, you have to accept that’s part of your life,’’ said Ryan Smith, who was a fourth-round pick in 2016. “Every day, every game you’re putting yourself on the line.’’

So are these young players the solution the Bucs have been seeking?

It’s way too early to say. The early returns are promising in terms of aggressive coverage, but we’ve been fooled by a handful of games in the past.

What is certain is they are impossibly young and impressively confident.

“You’ve got to be a dog. You have to have that mentality that you can’t be beat at corner,’’ said Murphy-Bunting. “You’re one-on-one, you’re man-to-man, you have to say, ‘This is my guy and I’m going to beat this guy every single time.’ That’s the mindset you need. You have to have that short-term memory. You can’t fret about plays because they’re going to keep coming at you.’’

As he explains this, Murphy-Bunting was sitting in front of his locker, putting his cleats on for practice Wednesday afternoon. A few feet away, Hargreaves’ wooden nameplate had already been removed from above his locker. Hardly anyone seemed to notice.

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

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) warms up prior to an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken) [JASON BEHNKEN  |  AP]
    With 15.5 sacks, Barrett ties Simeon Rice’s 2002 total
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) celebrates getting the first down during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, December 8, 2019.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    Bruce Arians to Bucs receivers: “Nobody’s going to be Mike. But just be yourself ... and catch the damn ball when it’s thrown to you."
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston had a cast on his injured thumb during the Famous Jameis Jamboree at Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    While backup Ryan Griffin takes first-team snaps Wednesday, Bruce Arians shares what he expects for Winston Sunday in Detroit.
  4. Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre has the all-time NFL record for most interceptions thrown in a career. He led the league in interceptions three times. He said this year's interceptions leader, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, has "huge upside." [MATT LUDTKE  |  AP]
    The Pro Football Hall of Famer, and the NFL’s all-time interceptions leader, says Winston might be trying to do too much downfield. He knows from experience.
  5. The XFL isn't a developmental league, but it is a "league of opportunity," commissioner Oliver Luck said Tuesday. "Bust your butt, play hard, have a chance to get great game tape and you’ll get a shot in the NFL." [TED S. WARREN  |  Associated Press]
    In a wide-ranging interview, the commissioner discusses the state of the league. “Playing good football is our mandate,” he says. “We have to do that. We can’t be sloppy.”
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston smiles while greeting kids and posing for pictures during the Famous Jameis Jamboree at Raymond James stadium on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The quarterback hosts 2,500 kids Tuesday with bouncy houses and a chance to visit an NFL stadium.
  7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) is injured after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts this past Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    ESPN reports a hamstring injury will sideline the receiver. How will his absence impact the offense?
  8. In Sunday's win, Jameis Winston finished with four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, three interceptions and more than 400 passing yards. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to hit those marks in a single game. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  Associated Press]
    We’re talking about Tampa Bay’s grit and resilience but overlooking the reason why it fell behind in the first place: the quarterback.
  9. Quarterback Jameis Winston (3) reaches across the goal line for a touchdown during the first half of the Bucs' 38-35 win over Indianapolis Sunday in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    Linebacker Lavonte David lit into teammates at halftime Sunday and the Bucs rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit.
  10. Bucs receiver Mike Evans signs a Texas A&M jersey during his charity bowling event in Tampa on Monday night. Proceeds go to the Mike Evans Family Foundation, which provides college scholarships to low-income students. [EDUARDO ENCINA  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    In it’s first year of existence, the Mike Evans Family Foundation has helped send low-income students to college.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement