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Bucs’ Sean Murphy-Bunting went from zero to playoff hero

The defensive back had a rough regular season in 2020 followed by one of the best postseason performances ever.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his interception during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay on Jan. 24.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his interception during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay on Jan. 24. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 2
Updated Aug. 2

TAMPA — Just because he wore a personalized SMB hat, flashing his own brand, doesn’t mean success has gone to his head.

Sean Murphy-Bunting, one of the Bucs’ defensive stars during their run to a Super Bowl 55 win with an interception in three consecutive playoff games, is quick to remind you that not everyone knows his three names.

“I’m an underdog. I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” said Murphy-Bunting, peering beneath his trademark cap following another training camp practice. “I’ve been overlooked my entire life and I’m not going to act like I’m a champion in that aspect, but the work ethic and everything like that will stay high.”

If there is a player whose trajectory to stardom parallels that of the Bucs defense, it’s Murphy-Bunting.

The second-round pick out of Central Michigan in 2019 got off to a shaky start last season and was targeted often, allowing 60 of 78 passing attempts (76.92 percent) for 754 yards and six touchdowns and only one interception during Weeks 1-15, according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterbacks enjoyed a 126.76 passer rating versus Murphy-Bunting. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 114th best corner for those who participated in at least 20 percent of the defensive snaps.

But from that point through Super Bowl 55, Murphy-Bunting played like a Pro Bowler. Quarterbacks completed only 27 of 46 attempts (58.7 percent) for 245 yards and one touchdown while intercepting three passes for a 53.26 passer rating. Against man coverage, that rating dipped to 28.01. Murphy-Bunting’s performance improved his ranking by Pro Football Focus to eighth.

What was the difference?

Start with the laundry list of nagging injuries Murphy-Bunting struggled to play through.

Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) joins his teammates on the practice field Monday during training camp.
Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) joins his teammates on the practice field Monday during training camp. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I pulled my groin the second game of the season,” Murphy-Bunting said. “When my groin went, I started to have ankle problems and I sprained my left ankle. And I dislocated both my thumbs. ... Going into the playoffs, I started to feel a little better and I rolled my right ankle in practice so I was fighting through that.

“It’s all adversity it’s all things that the training staff did a really good job of maintaining control and the coaching staff did a really good job of making sure that I was prepared throughout the week so I could go into the game. I got to take care of it in the offseason and now I’m back at 100 percent.”

Credit defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for putting Murphy-Bunting in man coverage more, where he thrives, instead of playing off the football.

“He holds us all to a high standard,” Murphy-Bunting said. “Being in this system for three years now, I’ve never played for a specific coach for more than two seasons. I just know that for me, it’s a big game changer being able to come into camp already knowing the entire defense and just adding more pieces to that.”

Murphy-Bunting is the first player since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed (2006, 2008) to have three interceptions in three straight playoff games. He also added 19 tackles.

Only nine players in the history of the game have had more interceptions in the postseason. It’s only two shy of the NFL record of five set by the Raiders’ Lester Hayes (1980) and the Oilers’ Vernon Perry (1979).

Murphy-Bunting’s interception of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay may have propelled the Bucs to the Super Bowl.

The Packers trailed 14-10 and faced second and 18 at the Bucs’ 33-yard line with 34 seconds remaining in the first half. Murphy-Bunting was locked in man coverage in the slot on receiver Allen Lazard, who ran a skinny post. Murphy-Bunting undercut the route and virtually wrestled the football away from Lazard.

The interception helped set up an eventual 39-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Scotty Miller with seconds left in the first half to give the Bucs a 21-10 lead.

“I don’t look at myself as the guy who caught three interceptions in the playoffs,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I just look at myself as a guy who comes ready to work every day.”

Murphy-Bunting just has to start this season the way he finished the 2020 one. And coach Bruce Arians has one piece of advice.

“Stay away from those nit-picky injuries that bother you and you can’t perform,” Arians said. “I think he’s done a better job of knowing how to take care of himself and sometimes freaky things are going to happen. He knows how to play through them now and that’s a huge part of it.”

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