TAMPA — In Tampa Bay, the Cover 2 defense has become cover who?
In the first two games of the season, the Cowboys and Falcons launched 104 passes. Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan combined to complete 77 for 703 yards and five touchdowns.
Despite winning both games, the Bucs are ranked 30th against the pass and next to last in sacks with two. Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh are the only defenders to put a quarterback on the ground.
Does this feel like a defense that will lead the Bucs back to the Super Bowl?
With their 48-25 win over the Falcons, the Bucs scored 30 or more points in their ninth straight game, an NFL record. It’s a good thing because they’re allowing 27 points per game, which ranks 21st.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians, noting that his team still ranks second against the run, said opponents aren’t even interested in handing the ball off.
“No, I think it’s just the one hundred and something passes we got thrown against us,” Arians said. “Because they’re not running the football anymore. It’s one of those things. I thought our front four played really, really well (against the Falcons). We got a lot of pressure. Tipped a lot of balls. We got three interceptions, two of them off tipped balls.
“I think it’s just the volume of passes that we’re seeing. ... We’re going to give up some yards.”
Arians is right. For the most part, teams have abandoned the run against the Bucs, who owned the league’s top rushing defense in 2019 and 2020.
The strength of Tampa Bay’s defense is its front seven, particularly up the middle where Suh, Vita Vea and linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David line up.
The Falcons rushed 20 times for 55 yards, a measly 2.8-yard average with a long run of 10 yards. The Cowboys ran it 14 times for 47 yards, excluding Prescott’s three scrambles from the pocket for 13 yards.
Quarterbacks are attacking the perimeter, getting the ball out fast. But when Arians watches the tape, he sees players such as Vea forklifting guards and centers and dropping them at the quarterback’s feet.
“They’re winning a bunch,” Arians said. “Vita Vea is killing his guys. It’s just he’s knocking them into the quarterback and sacking them. I think we’re getting a ton of pressure. We knocked Dak down a bunch of times. Knocking them down at times is as good as sacking them. They feel it, too. But yeah, I’d like to see some more sacks.”
Barrett and Mike Edwards intercepted passes that were tipped against the Falcons. Edwards had two pick-sixes, so scoring on defense certainly trumps everything else.
Hey, Matt Ryan, did you feel any pressure when you dropped back to pass?
“It’s tough. You’ve got to give them credit,” Ryan said. “They did a good job of continuing to pressure and getting their hands up. It’s tough to go against but you’ve got to learn from it.”
Of course, the Bucs are about to take a big step up in class this Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
Sean McVay dumped first-round quarterback Jared Goff and traded him to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. A year ago, Goff came into Raymond James Stadium and threw 51 passes, completing 39 for 376 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Imagine what Stafford might do with an array of receivers that include Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and DeSean Jackson.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Bucs secondary is not healthy. Sean Murphy-Bunting will miss four to six weeks with a dislocated shoulder. Jordan Whitehead played 57 of the 72 defensive snaps. Pass coverage and pass rush go hand in hand.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht has reached out to cornerback Richard Sherman, who was arrested in July after he tried to force his way into a family member’s home after crashing his SUV in a construction zone.
“If it’s the right fit, it’s the right fit and we’ll move on it,” Arians said of courting Sherman.
A year ago, with injuries to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Bucs signed Antonio Brown after he finished serving an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Sherman, 33, also has drawn interest from the 49ers, Seahawks and Saints, so he has some leverage in negotiations if talks progress that far. He reportedly is back down to his playing weight of 195 pounds.
Murphy-Bunting eventually will return to the lineup. Would it be as a starter and would Sherman then accept a backup role?
Perhaps more importantly, can the Bucs scoop him up on the way to SoFi Stadium by Sunday?
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