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Burned Bucs defense braces for Eli Manning, Odell Beckham

 
Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for two touchdowns in a 32-18 win over the Bucs in 2015. [JIM DAMASKE | Times (2015)]
Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for two touchdowns in a 32-18 win over the Bucs in 2015. [JIM DAMASKE | Times (2015)]
Published Sept. 30, 2017

TAMPA — When you last saw the Bucs' defense, it was depleted and struggling, giving up 369 yards and three touchdowns — to Tampa Bay nemesis Case Keenum — in a humbling 34-17 loss to the Vikings.

It will be a bit healthier Sunday against the Giants, and getting back Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes likely will be a major boost. But facing the likes of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, there's an urgency to play at a much higher level in front of the home crowd.

"We didn't perform at the level that we needed to (against the Vikings). That's obvious in terms of explosive plays," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "When you give up close to 190 yards in four plays, it really doesn't matter what happens the rest of the game. … You just can't do that. We did it, and we own it from the top down. We made the corrections, and we move on."

They try to move on against Manning, who is 5-0 against the Bucs and threw for 510 yards against them in a win in 2012. He hasn't been sacked the past three times he has faced the Bucs and has three productive receivers in Beckham, veteran Brandon Marshall and second-year pro Sterling Shepard.

"We've got to make plays. Last week we didn't make any plays, simple as that," said cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who gave up 126 yards and a touchdown on seven catches against the Vikings.

The Bucs' defense has one sack in 78 pass attempts this season. The team's benchmark is one for every 14 pass attempts.

Even when the defense has played well and set up third-and-long situations, opponents have been able to convert. Chicago's Mike Glennon converted on third and 11 and third and 9 in the opener. Keenum converted on third and 12.

"Third down and long is probably the most irritating," Smith said. "You should win about 90 percent of the third down and 10-pluses, and we've had conversions … three times thus far in the season. It is a concern."

Manning also has a history of success against Smith's teams. He threw for 384 and three touchdowns against Smith's Falcons in 2009, and when Atlanta made the playoffs in 2011, Manning threw for 277 and three scores in eliminating the Falcons 24-2.

Grimes and Manning go way back. He intercepted a Manning pass in 2009 while with the Falcons. He gave up a 45-yard pass to Beckham in 2015 when the Giants beat the Dolphins.

Ryan Smith, who got his first start in place of Grimes against the Vikings, struggled in coverage, giving up two touchdown passes, including a 59-yarder.

"I know I did wrong," said Smith, who may return to his special-teams role. "I'm definitely going to play better. That won't happen again. Just learn from my mistakes. It's better to go through it so you know where you messed up so it won't happen again."

Since coming into the league in 2014, Beckham has 20 catches of 40 yards or longer; only the Bucs' DeSean Jackson, with 22, has more. Those two tie for the NFL career lead among active players with 11 touchdowns of 40-plus yards, and whether it's Hargreaves or Grimes lining up against Beckham on Sunday, there's a healthy respect for how dangerous he is.

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"He's probably the best I've ever seen," Hargreaves said of Beckham, whom he first faced as a Gators freshman when Beckham was at LSU. "(Raiders star Amari Cooper) is my guy, but them two, it don't get any better. … What a challenge. What an opportunity. This is what you want, and what you should want as a corner. I'm excited."

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.