TAMPA — You hear this sort of bravado from dominating defensive linemen and snarling linebackers.
It’s an invitation to intimidation. The threat is as psychological as it is physical.
Perhaps that’s why so many ears perked up when they heard this coming from cornerback Carlton Davis: “I want to be feared as a corner to all opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.”
When listing Davis’ biggest assets, you start with his length, not his strength. But the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Davis has a point to make. He is the Bucs’ best cover corner, a rare player who can travel across formations with the opposing team’s best receiver.
At 24, the former Auburn defensive back is the leader of a relatively inexperienced secondary. Confidence has never been in short supply.
In fact, he led the Bucs with four interceptions last season, all of which came in the first eight games.
And for better or worse, Davis is the one who labeled the Bucs secondary ― and now its defense ― the “Grave Diggers.”
“It was kind of a caption,” said Davis, who originally posted the moniker on Instagram. “Then after that it kind of took over and it stuck with us.”
That’s far better than what some were calling the Bucs secondary when the season began.
NFL.com’s Cynthia Frelund ranked all 32 secondaries in the NFL and somehow the Bucs ranked dead last.
“That was something that motivated us,” Davis said. “I don’t know what she got her stats from or what she researched but I’m pretty sure we proved them wrong last year and this year, we’re going to take another step.”
It’s important to note that it wasn’t too long ago that some of the league’s better quarterbacks were attacking the Bucs secondary without hesitation, knowing it was the weakest link to an otherwise formidable defense.
The front seven was stout and best against the run for the second year in a row.
But on the outside, once you accounted for Davis, the Bucs were giving on-the-job training to second-year cornerbacks such as Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Antoine Winfield Jr. was a rookie safety from Minnesota while Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards were green but growing.
Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert completed 20 of 25 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams’ Jared Goff went for 376 yards passing and three scores.
Then came their worst game of the season in a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 29. Patrick Mahomes passed for 462 yards and three touchdowns to Tyreek Hill, who posted a career-high 13 catches for 269 yards receiving.
Much of that came against Davis, who unenviably was locked up man-to-man with Hill.
“I think we always had the confidence,” Davis said. “A lot of the times social media and the outsiders have their take. They make other people see us in a certain way, and as a group we always knew what we could do and we never really listened to the outsiders speaking on what we do. We always keep each other up and we know who we are. We can look ourselves in the mirror at the end of the day and we know what kind of guys we are.”
Davis and the Bucs proved it the final eight games of the season. The younger players around him, specifically Murphy-Bunting and Winfield Jr., grew up fast.
“When you have good chemistry in the DB corps, it allows you to play a little more looser and just calm, and it allows you to make more plays because you understand what each guy is going to do,” Davis said.
Davis can get better individually, too. He dropped a lot of passes that went into the stat sheet as a pass breakup but should have been interceptions.
“Consistency, and don’t drop any,” coach Bruce Arians said when asked how Davis can improve. “One of the greatest corners I ever saw was Albert Lewis. Same length; (Davis) looks a lot like him. Albert couldn’t catch. He won the title of batting balls away, but you couldn’t complete anything on him. Carlton can catch and he’s getting much better at it.”
Murphy-Bunting, meanwhile, had one of the best performances in playoff history with three interceptions in four games. Winfield Jr. caused a fumble to turn the division playoff at New Orleans around and added an interception of Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
“I think this game is all about respect and I don’t think we got the respect we wanted, as a (defensive backs) corps or even as a defense,” Davis said. “I think we have a point to prove this year and like I said, it’s all about respect. This year I plan on taking it.”
One shovel at a time.
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