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For beleaguered Bucs secondary, cross-training is now customary

Out of necessity, some defensive backs have practiced at more than one position.
Out of necessity, veteran Bucs cornerback Richard Sherman (5) has been logging practice reps at safety. Still, Sherman likely will be summoned only in an emergency situation Sunday against the Bills, coach Bruce Arians indicated.
Out of necessity, veteran Bucs cornerback Richard Sherman (5) has been logging practice reps at safety. Still, Sherman likely will be summoned only in an emergency situation Sunday against the Bills, coach Bruce Arians indicated. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2021|Updated Dec. 11, 2021

TAMPA — In one sense, Richard Sherman has found himself playing zone lately, and not his comfort one.

The Bucs’ chronic depth issues in the secondary have forced the 33-year-old cornerback to cross-train at safety. During his weekly podcast released earlier this week, the three-time all-pro shared the nuances — and angst — of his new gig with Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard.

“You know what gets me ... tackling angles,” Sherman told Howard. “Bro, the angles from the safety spot are different than what we’re used to.”

Ideally, Sherman never finds himself as the last line of defense for a ball carrier churning downhill Sunday against the Bills (7-5). Then again, the game-day status of the Bucs’ secondary rarely has been ideal all season.

Starting safety Jordan Whitehead (calf) won’t play Sunday, coach Bruce Arians said, and safety Mike Edwards remains suspended for misrepresenting his vaccination status.

Those absences arrive in the wake of a rash of cornerback injuries that forced opening-night starters Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis out of action for eight and seven games, respectively. As a result, Sherman is only the latest defensive back forced to train at two or more secondary positions.

Ross Cockrell has been getting reps at multiple positions out of necessity.
Ross Cockrell has been getting reps at multiple positions out of necessity. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Reserve nickel corner Ross Cockrell has been training at safety for months. Edwards has logged some critical game reps at nickel corner as well. Backup safety Andrew Adams acknowledged he has practiced at more than one secondary spot.

“You cross-train certain guys, but you don’t cross-train everybody,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “Right now, it seems to be we are cross-training everybody.”

The results testify to the team’s versatility or Bowles’ acumen, or both.

The Bucs are allowing 248.4 passing yards a game, which ranks 20th in the NFL but comes off far more favorably when considering how opponents have routinely abandoned the run against them.

Additionally, they rank 11th in the league in opposing-quarterback rating (89.1). And despite the carousel of starting rotations — which includes 11 different starting corner tandems or trios in 12 games — Bowles hasn’t compromised his blitz packages. Tampa Bay’s 32 sacks are tied for fourth-most in the league.

“There’s always the saying, ‘The more you can do,’ which just means the more you can do, the longer you can stay in the league, the more coaches and personnel can rely on you,” Adams said.

“So I would just say being able to tweak your game, being able to do one thing and become another is just going to help you in your career.”

Even when you’re in the twilight of it.

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On his podcast, Sherman said the practice reps at safety have been an orientation in understanding run fits, watching guards pull and interpreting play-action, among other disciplines.

“Not getting fooled by quarterback intentions in the middle of the field,” Sherman told Howard. “It’s just seeing the game different from being on the edges.”

What he’ll see Sunday is a dual threat capable of putting the Bucs on edge.

Behind quarterback Josh Allen, Buffalo ranks 10th in the NFL in total offense (376.0 ypg). Allen is the league’s third-leading rusher among quarterbacks (422 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) and ranks seventh in the NFL with 3,216 passing yards.

That versatility, combined with kickoff temperatures that could hit 80 degrees, could force Bowles to maximize his rotations to keep fresh legs on the field. Still, Sherman will be needed only in a pinch.

But in 2021, pinches have become prevalent.

“(We’re) trying to see what he can and can’t do if something happens,” Bowles said. “Then he can go in there and try to work on those things. We’re trying to cross-train a lot of people, but to give him everything (in the defensive play book) would be far-fetched right now.”

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

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