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For Bucs cornerback unit, worst-case scenario has come to fruition

“The next man up, we expect him to still play to the standard,” veteran Jamel Dean said.
Third-year cornerback Jamel Dean (35) is one of the few healthy corners the Bucs have entering Monday night's home game against the Giants.
Third-year cornerback Jamel Dean (35) is one of the few healthy corners the Bucs have entering Monday night's home game against the Giants. [ NICK WASS | AP ]
Published Nov. 18, 2021
Updated Nov. 19, 2021

TAMPA — During their joyless ride on adversity’s freeway, the Bucs already have sped past depleted and decimated, and are bearing down on desperate.

At one point in Sunday’s second half against Washington, they were using their No. 6 cornerback. Opening-night starters Sean Murphy-Bunting (elbow) and Carlton Davis (quad) remained on injured reserve. Jamel Dean, the third cornerback entering the season, was on the field, but veteran Richard Sherman strained a calf muscle shortly before kickoff and couldn’t go.

Then Dee Delaney suffered a concussion in the second half, forcing Pierre Desir — the No. 6 cornerback, if you’re counting — to be summoned.

“The next man up, we expect him to still play to the standard,” Dean said Thursday.

But what’s a team to do when “next man up” regresses to “last man up?” A year after no Tampa Bay cornerback spent time on injured reserve, the unit finds itself scrambling to survive until people get healthy.

“We already had in mind the worst-case scenarios because of how the season’s been going,” Dean said. “We had to make sure that everybody’s prepared, because we’ve been telling people, ‘Prepare as if you’re going to play.’ "

Things appear a bit brighter entering Monday night’s showdown with the Giants, who annually play the Bucs tough. While Sherman has been placed on injured reserve, Murphy-Bunting appears poised to return. He began his 21-day practice window this month and could be activated at any point.

“He’s getting better. He’s comfortable,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said after Thursday’s practice. “He’s been running around a lot more. His wind’s getting a lot better, so we’ll just continue to monitor him.”

But even if Murphy-Bunting is cleared, the unit’s margin for injury would remain minimal. Counting Dean and Desir, the Bucs would have three cornerbacks for Monday, four if you toss in the nickel tandem of traditional safety Mike Edwards and converted safety Ross Cockrell. Veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson, on the practice squad, also is an option.

“I think every guy that we’ve had in our room has stepped up and has done everything that we’ve asked them to do each and every week, each and every day,” Murphy-Bunting said last week.

“Guys are just stepping up and being accountable, being that next man up and not having a lack in performance.”

Still, coach Bruce Arians acknowledged that the adversity at the spot has forced the defense to modify its approach, employing more zone than man-to-man coverage because of the depleted numbers.

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“It’s going to be a little bit softer back there,” Arians said, “so we have to get home when we’re blitzing.”

The Bucs did that effectively against Washington, recording five sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The problem was in their second straight loss, none of those splash plays occurred on third down, where Washngton went 11-of-19.

“I don’t think (the tweaked approach) makes much of a difference,” Bowles said. “Everybody knows the defense, and everybody knows the calls. We’ve just got to make plays; that’s really all it boils down to. There’s no excuse or rhyme or reason for anything. I can call it better, and we can play it better.”

The Bucs are bracing for a Giants team that might be at its healthiest on offense since the season’s outset. Tailback Saquon Barkley (ankle) and left tackle Andrew Thomas (foot, ankle) have realistic shots at playing after extended absences. Receiver Sterling Shepard (quad) could be the only pass-catcher sidelined.

Moreover, the Giants have given the Bucs fits recently, winning two of the four games the teams have played the last four seasons. Those games have been decided by eight total points.

“(The limited depth) doesn’t affect the way we prepare, because we try to give everybody reps every day so by the end of the week, they’re ready to play football,” Bowles said Thursday.

“So we just go with what we’ve got, and we’ve got to hold down the fort until guys get better.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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