No player has helped the Bucs on defense as much as rookie LB Kwon Alexander, who spearheaded a surge to a 6-6 record with 93 tackles, six tackles for loss, nine passes defensed, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
No player has hurt the Bucs more than Alexander, who was suspended for the final four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He says he unwittingly consumed a banned substance in an energy drink.
Since his departure, the team has lost critical games to the Saints and Rams, sub-.500 teams who jumped to big leads after the defense gave up explosive pass plays and failed to produce a takeaway. The Bucs weren't good enough to overcome Alexander's absence. It's not just the middle linebacker's energy and playmaking ability that are missed. Alexander was the quarterback of the defense, a tackling Jameis Winston, if you will.
Coach Lovie Smith took the opportunity to deliver a not-so-veiled message to Alexander when asked how much losing him has negatively affected the team.
"I think it's good for a player like Kwon Alexander to see how much he means to his football team," Smith said. " We haven't been the same without him. …There's a reason why we put him in after one preseason game. He brings something to the table.
"Nobody plays harder than him. The guy is an impact hitter. It's about production with him. He's intercepted the ball, he's stripped the ball, all those big things you're talking about that we have really missed the last couple of weeks. Those are things that he brought to the table."
BANKING ON IT? One of the biggest stories of the Bucs season has been the roulette wheel Smith has spun in the secondary each week. It has become a chicken-or-egg situation. Is the secondary lousy because of all the changes or have all the changes been necessary because the play in the secondary has been lousy?
After a 60-yard pass allowed by rookie CB Jude Adjei-Barimah against the Rams on Dec. 17, former starter Johnthan Banks is getting a shot to reclaim the job.
Banks, 26, has pedigree as the 2012 winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in college, and a second-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2013. At 6 feet 2, he is also long and can occupy space against the league's tall receivers.
Banks has one year left on his rookie contract, which will pay him a base salary of about $850,000, so the team doesn't seem ready to give up on him despite only 12 tackles this year.
"I do think he can be effective, and he has been," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "He did some good things for us, even last season, really came on strong as he got a better handle of what we were asking at the position (in Smith and Frazier's first year).
"This year (Banks) had a little bit of a hiccup. Jude came on, did a good job for us. Sterling (Moore) did a good job for us. But (Banks is) going to get an opportunity over the next couple of weeks to show us why he deserves to be the guy at the position. We haven't closed the book on Johnthan Banks at all."
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REST OF THE STORY: It's perplexing why DT Gerald McCoy has any detractors at this point. He was named to his fourth straight Pro Bowl last week and leads the team with 7½ sacks. As he revealed Tuesday, he has been playing with a torn right rotator cuff since Week 2 and a broken left hand since Nov. 29, missing only one game.
Teams don't disclose many details about injuries. But it seems the Bucs did a disservice to McCoy when Smith described surgery to insert a plate and several screws in the tackle's left hand as "a minor procedure." Not having the use of one arm and one hand typically doesn't help your career, and McCoy would've been within his rights to shut down his season.
Two-thirds of the Pro Bowl vote comes from coaches and players, in McCoy's case, offensive linemen who face him. You might not like McCoy's game for whatever reason, but you can't call him soft.