TAMPA — They caged the Hawk. Bucs safety Dashon Goldson was pulled off the field during some critical passing downs last week in what coach Lovie Smith called a "safety rotation." Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the team just wanted to get a look at seldom-used Bradley McDougald.
Goldson, the NFL's fourth highest-paid safety at $8.250 million per year, described it as a "certain package" the team wanted to deploy. "It is what it is," Goldson said. "We've all got to play our roles. It's cool."
But teams don't typically pull a two-time Pro Bowl safety off the field, or trade a 25-year-old former first-round pick like Mark Barron to St. Louis, if the secondary is playing well.
Along with his teammates, Goldson, a k a the Hawk from his ball-hawking days with the 49ers, has failed to get the job done. Since signing a five-year, $41.25 million contract as a free agent in 2013, he has one interception in 20 games with the Bucs.
Even in the worst of Smith's nine seasons as Bears coach, his Tampa 2 scheme was defined by daredevil pass thieves. The Bears averaged 20.1 interceptions and never had fewer than 13.
The Bucs have six in nine games.
"We're playing the guys that we feel like deserve to play," Smith said. "... I'm disappointed in our takeaways in general. Sometimes, you have to look at the amount of opportunities you get. Are you dropping balls? They're not dropping a lot, but there is some."
No statistic separates winners from losers like turnover ratio. The Bucs are minus-7, 27th in the NFL. Even worse is today's opponent, the Washington Redskins, ranked 29th at minus-9.
"We definitely need to get more takeaways," Frazier said. "We were hoping after the couple we got against the Browns (on Nov. 2) we would get something going — and then we came up empty on Sunday. … We think we have good enough athletes on the back end to get some takeaways, and we're going to need to get it done on the road this week. But it's something we're working as hard as we can to get it turned."
Of course, interceptions do not begin on the back end of the defense. A majority come from putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks, which the Bucs have failed to do. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy leads with five sacks. Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald each have two. Last week, McCoy grew tired of double-teams, particularly when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stepped up with ease.
"Gerald is getting a lot of protections sliding to him and centers coming to him and that creates opportunities for other guys, and we need to take advantage of it," Frazier said. "Our guys know that and we've got to find that person that can do that. Hopefully this week we'll get Michael (Johnson) back and he'll get those opportunities, but if not that, it means other guys would have to step up. … It puts a lot of stress on our secondary when we don't."
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The Bucs secondary has just three interceptions. Johnthan Banks has two and fellow cornerback Alterraun Verner has one. This from a franchise that since 2012 has parted with Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Eric Wright and Barron.
Now Frazier is putting some hope in McDougald, a second-year pro from Kansas who was undrafted and plucked off waivers from the Chiefs last season.
"He can play down low but he also can be flexed out and cover tight ends," Frazier said. "We had a couple of occasions on Sunday where we actually matched him up on their receivers when they went four wide receivers and he handled himself well. He's got some flexibility, not just being a run stopper but having some man coverage abilities as well. He's not a one-dimensional guy."
The foundation for Smith's defense always has been built on takeaways. His Bears teams averaged 34 per season and had 29 with his inaugural club in 2004 that went 5-11. The Bucs are on pace for 21.
That's why there have been so many changes. All but $3 million of the $22 million in guarantees given Goldson will have been paid by 2015.
The Hawk and his teammates have seven games left to prove they can make this defensive plan fly.