Thawing The Frozen Four

August 17th, 2016


Ira keeps it real in his latest column, which goes deep on the Bucs’ secondary.



A beleaguered Bucs secondary is determined to rip a page out of the offensive line’s playbook this fall.

Tampa Bay’s front rebounded in a big way in 2015, leading the Bucs to a franchise-record offense.

This year, it’s the defensive backfield that seeks atonement.

Nothing frustrated Buc fans more last season than the inability of the Frozen Four to make plays. It looked like the secondary had never seen a slant pass before, as opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their throws.

Let’s think about that for a moment. That 70 percent mark was the NFL’s worst showing since the 2011 Colts allowed a 71.2 completion clip.

And by the way, the Bucs also finished last in the league in that category in 2014 (68.7 percent) — giving head coach Lovie Smith a woeful exacta.

With cornerbacks playing 10 yards off their man and poor communication remaining a chronic problem, quarterbacks posted a 102.5 passer rating against the Bucs last year. The pass rush wasn’t stellar, but the biggest reason for all that generosity was a passive scheme that didn’t fit the personnel.

The Bucs had one mantra on pass defense last year — don’t get beat deep.

Pecked To Death

In that narrow regard, they were successful. Tampa Bay allowed an NFL-low 45 completions of at least 20 yards and only five completions of 40 yards or more.

Instead, the Bucs were pecked to death, unable to get off the field and unable to keep the chains from moving while Jameis Winston and company stewed on the sidelines.

So here comes new defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who watched all those bad habits unfold when he viewed game tapes of the 2015 Bucs. Armed with new players and others who appear revitalized, Smith wants to change the mindset of a unit that played without confidence.

“There’s a lot more competition out here and we’re all trying to make each other better,” says Alterraun Verner, a former Pro Bowl corner demoted by Smith without explanation last fall. “We’re using different techniques that seem to be more aggressive.”

After one preseason game, there is evidence that Tampa Bay’s secondary can crawl out of the muck.

The Eagles completed only half of their 36 pass attempts in last week’s 17-9 victory. Three quarterbacks combined for just 95 yards through the air, with a cumulative passer rating of 45.4.

“I don’t want to compare things to last year, but it’s a lot more complex and there’s a lot more going on than we had last year,” says veteran safety Chris Conte. “It’s just a different mentality, a different speed. As a safety, you want to be able to do a lot of different things so it’s fun.”

Truth In Advertising

Among the many adjectives used to describe Tampa Bay’s secondary last year, “fun” wasn’t near the top of the list. That’s why GM Jason Licht signed Brent Grimes and drafted Florida corner Vernon Hargreaves No. 11 overall.

“They are as advertised,” says Verner. “I’ve liked Grimes since he was in Atlanta. He’s a play-maker and he’s still got it. He flies around and he’s the most athletic guy I’ve seen. Coaches have put a lot on Hargreaves’ plate and he’s handling it well.”

At this point, Grimes and Verner are starters, with Conte and Bradley McDougald at safety. Speaking of McDougald, he’s still developing at the age of 25, but the Bucs need to see more impact plays from him in the deep middle of the field.

Secondary coach Jon Hoke and defensive backs coach Brett Maxie are breaking Hargreaves in at nickel corner, a key spot because sub-packages are utilized on up to 70 percent of NFL snaps.

While Verner appears to be embracing his new opportunity, Johnthan Banks has yet to author his comeback story. The 2013 second-round pick led the Bucs with four interceptions in 2014, but he fell out of favor last year, starting only seven games and failing to register a pick.

Verner and Sterling Moore, who is now in Buffalo, were the only Buc corners to intercept a pass in 2015, as a sorry defense finished with just 11 picks.

Banks’ hold on a roster spot is tenuous. He was drafted by a prior administration and has yet to prove himself to a new coaching staff.

The new-look secondary hasn’t played scared in training camp, closing fast on the ball and making Winston work hard for completions.

“They’re giving us a lot of good work,” Mike Evans said. “Brent Grimes is one of the best defensive backs in the league and Hargreaves is looking really nice. Working against those guys is only going to make us better.”

It won’t take long to evaluate Tampa Bay’s defensive backfield when the games count. The Bucs face Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones in the season opener and a likely Hall of Famer, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, awaits the Bucs in Week 2, both on the road.

Until it proves otherwise, Tampa Bay’s secondary remains a primary concern — another position group eager to start a redemption tour.

4 Responses to “Thawing The Frozen Four”

  1. Nole on Sat.-Bucc on Sun. Says:

    Nice write up again Mr. Kaufman. And man how I’m looking forward to Grime and Julio week one.

  2. Pickgrin Says:

    Nice piece Ira. The talent infusion of Grimes and Hargreaves will help this secondary quite a bit.

    But I honestly believe the 2015 secondary’s biggest problem was terrible coaching – complements of Lovie’s friends and family plan.

  3. Warren Says:

    It’s been a weakness going back to Schiano days..would be great if the secondary issues are finally solved!

  4. Buccfan37 Says:

    “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end”, a defensive backfield where the opponents were often open is history hopefully.