TAMPA — The last time we saw Sean Murphy-Bunting at Ford Field in Detroit, he was taking an interception to the house.
The football from his fourth-quarter pick-six that sealed a 38-17 win over the Lions was given to his mother, who was among the 40 family members and friends in the end zone where Murphy-Bunting provided a career highlight.
The former Central Michigan cornerback, who grew up in the Detroit area, tied all NFL rookies and led the Bucs last season with three interceptions. On that play, he lined up in the slot position and undercut an out route by Danny Amendola.
Murphy-Bunting high-stepped through the end zone, spun the football like a top and oozed confidence.
Contrast that with the player who will return to Ford Field with the Bucs on Saturday. Murphy-Bunting’s only interception this season came Nov. 2 at the Giants. Last Sunday, he was in coverage on both Falcons touchdown passes to Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.
Murphy-Bunting epitomizes the Bucs secondary this season, particularly their cornerbacks. He’s tentative, a step slow, giving up way too many big plays and battling nagging injuries.
“Obviously, he was a lot healthier (last season),” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He’s nowhere near where he was last year, this year, from that standpoint. But he’s doing a lot more for us. For him, it’s two or three plays a game. As a corner, if you play great (for) 50 or 60 plays and you have two or three bad plays, you have a bad game. It’s just ironing out some technique things in that aspect and he’ll be fine.”
The Bucs have been outscored 59-7 in the first quarter of their past six games while going 3-3. The offense has carried most of the burden, but the defense has started just as slowly.
The Bucs are 25th in passing yards allowed this season with 3,574 but only six teams have allowed more than the Bucs’ 27 touchdown passes. Quarterbacks have managed a 95.7 passer rating while the 69.4 completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks is only worse for the Falcons and Jaguars.
Of course, injuries to the Bucs secondary have taken a toll. Cornerback Carlton Davis, who leads the club with four interceptions and typically travels with the opponents’ best receiver, is doubtful for Saturday. Jamel Dean has missed time with a concussion and nursed a groin injury of his own. Ross Cockrell, who was promoted from the practice squad in mid-October, has provided some stability and depth.
Last Sunday, the Bucs fell behind 17-0 in the first half. The Chiefs and Chargers also built 17-point edges only to see most of them erased.
“We stay calm because we know we’re really good and there’s just a cockiness about us that you know you’ve got to have when you’re play professional football,” linebacker Devin White said. "
“You have to know you’re good and go out with that swagger. It’s like we have to flip a switch, which it shouldn’t be like that … it’s something we got to fix.”
Fortunately for the Bucs, they finish up the season against a pair of teams that have long since been eliminated from the postseason (they’ll host the Falcons in the season finale).
But any NFL quarterback can carve you up if you’re not playing well, which was the case in the first half at Atlanta. Murphy-Bunting appeared to play too loose on the touchdown to Gage. On the other score, he had good coverage but didn’t plaster Ridley, who worked his way back toward quarterback Matt Ryan and caught the touchdown near the front pylon.
Incidentally, Ryan was 6-for-6 for 71 yards and a score on the first drive alone. Not all of that is Murphy-Bunting’s fault. A big missed tackle on third and 9 by Devin White on Todd Gurley extended the drive.
While the Lions’ season is circling the drain and their coaching staff — including interim boss Darrell Bevel, will miss Satruday’s game on COVID-19 protocol — they still have plenty of weapons on offense, starting with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“He’s one of my all-time favorite guys. He’s tough as nails,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s one of the few quarterbacks I like going out and watching warm up. Just watching him throw because he’s so special. I’ve always felt like he was one of the top four or five guys in this league for a long time.”
The Bucs are fourth in the NFL with 14 interceptions, but Bowles is expecting more.
“I think we can get a lot more,” Bowles said. “For me, anything up over 20 is pretty good, so we’re a little short there. We’ve dropped a few, we’ve knocked some down, we’ve given away some opportunities. We’ve got two games to go and we’re chirping and chiming at it. It’ll get better. They come in bunches.”
It’s gut check time for the Bucs secondary, and the team can only home it’s another happy homecoming for Murphy-Bunting.