Bucs defense allowing big passing days

Bucs safety Bradley McDougald had an interception against Jacksonville, but Tampa Bay allowed 303 yards passing Sunday.
Bucs safety Bradley McDougald had an interception against Jacksonville, but Tampa Bay allowed 303 yards passing Sunday.
Published Oct. 13, 2015

TAMPA — Each of the Bucs defensive backs wear gloves, but they have been as useless as catcher's mitts this season considering how rarely they have gotten their hands on the football.

In Sunday's 38-31 win, the Bucs let Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles throw for 303 yards and a career high four touchdown passes. In fact, opposing quarterbacks are feasting on Tampa Bay's soft secondary and have a 105.7 passer rating, which ranks 29th; only the Saints, 49ers and Lions are worse.

In 33 pass attempts by Bortles, Bucs defensive backs only defensed three passes. It's not as if they're helping on the run, either. Starting cornerback Mike Jenkins had one tackle in 51 snaps Sunday and fellow starter Tim Jennings had three stops in 57 plays.

Safety Bradley McDougald had his first interception of the season but it should've been a bigger day for the defense, which registered six sacks.

Instead of closing out the game with a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Bucs let Bortles drive 86 yards in seven plays, using only 1:45. They needed Vincent Jackson's onside kick recovery to secure the win.

"We haven't played well enough," coach Lovie Smith said of his secondary. "It's as simple as that. No, I'm not pleased at all.

"We've had opportunities to take the ball away more times. A game like (Sunday), to finish on a note like that is discouraging where there were missed tackles and just your play on the ball. So we're not where we need to be on the back end right now. But we'll keep working on it."

There have been a lot of changes in the secondary since the start of the season. Jennings and Jenkins have taken over as starters. Johnthan Banks suffered a knee injury against the Texans and Alterraun Verner was benched in favor of Jenkins, the former USF star.

On Sunday, the Bucs lost safety Chris Conte to an ankle injury and backup safety Keith Tandy left with a knee sprain.

"Defensively, I didn't like the way we finished," Smith said. "But that's more (on) a few individual guys."

Verner, a Pro Bowl player for the Titans who signed a four-year, $25.75 million contract as a free agent last season, was benched the third game of the season. He had been in the cornerback rotation until Sunday, when he made his first start at the nickel position made popular by Ronde Barber.

Verner had half a sack and four tackles Sunday and figures to still play a big role as a versatile player against the run and the pass in the middle of the defense.

"I thought he handled the move like a pro would handle the move," Smith said of Verner. "He did what we asked him to do. He made a couple plays from that position.

"When people look at the nickel position sometimes, you wonder why you put a player like that in the position. First off, you just look at who have we had here at the nickel position. It takes a special player to do that. The nickel position can be as involved as any position on the defense. He gets a chance to blitz. Vern got a sack on it.

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"At times, he's going in for one of our (strongside) linebackers so you're for sure going to be involved with the run. Man coverage. So he gets a chance to do everything so you need a pretty good player at that position."

Jennings, Conte and backup safety Major Wright played for Smith with the Bears, so he trusts those players. Jennings, 31, is the third-oldest player on the team but two years removed from a Pro Bowl appearance and three years from posting nine interceptions. Jenkins spent last season on IR and neither have contracts beyond this season.

It might take another draft for the Bucs to address their secondary. They've only selected one defensive player, linebacker Kwon Alexander, the past two years. So this, too, may come to pass. (And pass. And pass).