Carlton Davis personifies Bucs’ defensive collapse during 4-game skid

The Bucs’ highest-paid defensive back allows the final three touchdown passes by Texans QB C.J. Stroud in Sunday’s second half.
Texans wide receiver Tank Dell (3) collects a touchdown catch in front of Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis (24) during the second half Sunday in Houston.
Texans wide receiver Tank Dell (3) collects a touchdown catch in front of Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis (24) during the second half Sunday in Houston. [ ERIC GAY | AP ]
Published Nov. 6, 2023|Updated Nov. 6, 2023

TAMPA — In the final 21 minutes of the Bucs’ 39-37 loss to the Texans on Sunday, rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud threw three of his five touchdown passes.

That included the game-winner to Tank Dell with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

But that wasn’t the only shocker for the Bucs.

What’s really surprising is the player beaten for each of those three touchdowns was Carlton Davis, one of the league’s highest-paid defensive backs with an average salary of $14.83 million.

“That was his man, that was his play,” coach Todd Bowles said Monday of Davis getting beat for the winner. “He’s not tired. Carlton is one of our players we rely on, and he had a bad day.”

But the truth is the Bucs defense — and their secondary in particular — hasn’t had many good days during the current four-game losing streak.

Since starting 3-1 and following the bye week, the Bucs have plummeted to 29th in total defense (372 yards per game), 31st in pass defense (279 yards average), 31st on third downs (48% conversions) and gone from sixth to 16th in scoring defense.

“Coverage has not been very good from a zone concept,” Bowles said. “(The) understanding taking from the game to practice or practice to the game has not been there. The effort is there. They want to win. They work hard (and) they understand what to do. Coach communication to player has been there all the way throughout, we’ve just got play better. We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better on Sunday, and we understand that. The last four weeks, we have not, whatsoever. We own that. ...

“We have nobody coming to save us.”

Davis isn’t the only Bucs player chasing receivers through the end zone. But on Sunday, Stroud seemed to target him even after starter Jamel Dean left the game with a concussion in the first half and was replaced by Zyon McCollum.

Even though Davis thrives in press man-to-man coverage, Bowles had been playing some form of zone coverage 79% of the time entering Sunday’s game.

First, Davis was torched on a stop-and-go route by Dell in the back corner of the end zone for a 29-yard TD. Then tight end Dalton Schultz defeated Davis on a corner route to the pylon for a 9-yard score. The game-winner to Dell came on a simple post route for 15 yards with only six seconds remaining in the game that Davis never got close enough to make a play on the ball.

“We were in (Cover) 2 most of the way,” Bowles said. “And we were in quarters (coverage) down at the red zone. (It was) something we’ve done every day, a route we’ve seen every time. We just didn’t make the play.”

Texans wide receiver Noah Brown (85) runs by his bench on the way to scoring on a long touchdown reception during the second half.
Texans wide receiver Noah Brown (85) runs by his bench on the way to scoring on a long touchdown reception during the second half. [ ERIC GAY | AP ]
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Davis wasn’t the only player out of position Sunday. Safety Ryan Neal took a bad angle on Stroud’s pass to Noah Brown to start the second half that resulted in a 75-yard touchdown. Neal, who had been alternating on passing downs with safety Dee Delaney, was taken out of the game after that play.

“Delaney plays back better than Ryan does,” Bowles said. “Ryan plays better in the box than Dee does.”

Bowles also elected not to blitz Stroud more in the second half with the game on the line. According to analytics site TruMedia Sports, the Bucs blitzed Stroud on 10 of his first 24 dropbacks, or 41%. He went 7-of-9 for 105 yards and a touchdown. But in the second half, Bowles brought pressure on only three of Stroud’s 20 dropbacks.

“The last series, you’re going to play zone when the game is on the line so the clock can run out,” Bowles said. “You’re not going to sit there and play man to give them a chance to throw a fade. We played man within that game and we got beat at man coverage, too, so right now we get beat at both. It really doesn’t matter which one we’re playing, we just have to coach it and play it better.”

For Davis’ part, he hasn’t made a big play in some time and has only one interception in his last 31 games. The perplexing thing is that three of the Bucs’ four starting defensive backs have been together for the past three seasons.

“It’s really not all communication, some people are just busting, and it’s just as simple as that,” Bowles said. “We’re saying communication, and we’re putting a bow on it, but certain people have to play better. It’s really that simple.”

How bad has the Bucs’ secondary been since the 3-1 start?

Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Ronde Barber, appearing on The 33rd Team podcast with Rich Gannon, said it best. “To me, this was an embarrassing watch for a guy who studies a lot of Bucs film. They look like the worst secondary in football, and they have one of the best safeties in football in Antoine Winfield Jr.”

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