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Is Sean Murphy-Bunting’s interception evidence of the Bucs’ new normal?

John Romano | The rookie’s goal-line play in the fourth quarter underscores the unmistakable growth in Tampa Bay’s secondary.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) celebrates his interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars with linebacker Devin White (45) and cornerback Carlton Davis (33) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. [STEPHEN B. MORTON  |  AP]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting (26) celebrates his interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars with linebacker Devin White (45) and cornerback Carlton Davis (33) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. [STEPHEN B. MORTON | AP]
Published Dec. 2

JACKSONVILLE — Their huge lead had shrunk, and the Bucs were fast-forwarding through a greatest hits list of blunders.

Let’s see, there was the turnover that led to the first Jaguars score. There was the sack that led to the second. There was the defensive penalty on fourth down that put Jacksonville one yard away from cutting what had once been a 25-point lead down to a single touchdown with plenty of time remaining.

You were familiar with this story. You knew the characters, and you were already bracing yourself for how it would end.

And then, suddenly, a kid steps in front of a pass and everything changes.

Turns out, the Bucs held on to beat the Jaguars 28-11 on Sunday. Rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve a fourth-quarter goal-line stand, and the rest of us were left wondering if we had written this team off too soon.

“That’s one of those things,’’ coach Bruce Arians said of the goal-line stand, “you can take and build off of for a long time.’’

Tampa Bay has now won three out of four for the first time since 2016. The defense that was looking historically bad a month ago has forced six turnovers and recorded 11 sacks the past two weeks. There is a confidence. There is a belief. There is a reason to look ahead.

Is it possible there is also a new normal for the Bucs?

“I know what kind of defense we have, and I knew how we were going to respond in that moment,’’ said cornerback Carlton Davis. “Get used to it. You’re going to see a lot of plays like this moving forward.’’

You could point out that the last three victories have come against teams that are 4-8, 3-9 and 3-7-1. That’s fair. You could also point out that Tampa Bay has lost its three most recent games against teams with winning records. That’s also fair.

But it misses the unmistakable growth seen in Tampa Bay’s young secondary in the past month. The Jaguars were two yards away from cutting the lead to 25-18 when Murphy-Bunting made a play that he might not have recognized quickly enough just a couple of months ago.

“We all talk about being playmakers, and Sean stepped up made a big play,’’ said linebacker Lavonte David, who got in Murphy-Bunting’s face after the interception. “I told him, 'Way to go man. Way to bail us out.’ That’s what we need to do around here. We need to step up and make plays when we have the opportunity.’’

And that’s what’s been happening in the secondary. Davis had a big second-half interception against the Falcons. Two weeks before that, it was Jamel Dean against the Cardinals. This time, it was Murphy-Bunting. Two rookies, and a second-year player. And Davis is the oldest of the bunch at 23.

In this case, the recognition was much more impressive than the execution. Murphy-Bunting was playing the slot receiver inside and Ryan Smith had Dede Westbrook on the outside when the play was snapped. The two receivers crossed paths, and so Murphy-Bunting told Westbrook to switch off.

“When I saw him coming across on the slant, I peeked back at the quarterback and saw the ball coming and I just jumped the route,’’ Murphy-Bunting said. “At the beginning of the season, I can’t tell you if I would have made that play or not. Moving forward I can tell you that play will be made every time.’’

The Bucs had a late lead against the Giants in September, but allowed rookie quarterback Daniel Jones to drive 75 yards in the final three minutes for the winning score. They had a second-half lead against the Titans in October, but gave up consecutive scoring drives for another collapse.

On the Monday following the Tennessee loss, the defensive backs got together at the training complex after everyone else had left and talked about turning things around.

“Basically, we said this has to end. We have to carry our own weight. Our run defense can’t carry us every time,’’ Murphy-Bunting said. “Teams were literally passing on us at will. That’s never good at the NFL level. We all had to bow up, we had to grow up, we had to show up. We had to do what we’re doing now.’’

It’s a small sample size, and it might be skewed by the level of competition. But it’s a start.

And it’s a lot different from what we’ve been conditioned to expect.

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

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