It was actually left guard Ali Marpet that mentioned Tuesday the Buccaneer defense is doing a great job playing together and as a whole. We've heard similar sentiments from defensive players themselves. Now in their second year within Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' system, they're all more comfortable and it's showing in the form of faster play and more cohesiveness overall.
It's perhaps most evident in the safety spot, in general. The traditional roles of a strong and free safety don't exactly exist in this defense. The two are interchangeable, requiring versatility and a thorough understanding of the defense as a whole out of the players in that position. That means third-year safety Jordan Whitehead, whose strength lies in his run support and primarily playing in the box has had to expand his skillset.
He showed it on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at home.
Whitehead made play after play, all of a varying kind and out of different positions on the field. Take a look at the following four examples to see how far Whitehead has come with his versatility.
1st & 10 at TB 22 (10:07)
The Panthers are in 21 personnel, with both running back Christian McCaffrey and fullback Alex Armah on the field. It's actually Armah with the pre-snap motion as he starts out wide then trots over inside the hash to the other side of the two stacked receivers to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's left. Bridgewater has McCaffrey flanked to his right so motioning the fullback inside is likely an attempt to draw the defense down to play the run.
The Bucs are in their base formation with a single-high safety and Whitehead creeping down in the box. As Bridgewater snaps the ball out of the shotgun, McCaffrey actually crosses him and waits for his gap provided by the left guard. At this point, Whitehead has dropped, the defense ready for the pass despite the bait set out by Carolina. With cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting covering the deep third to his side, Whitehead goes to step up covering underneath and catches a glimpse of McCaffrey where Bridgewater is likely going with the ball. Only Whitehead is pretty far off. Actually, if you listen to this week's Mic'd Up, cornerback Sean Muphy-Bunting actually tells Whitehead to 'scoot up' from his pre-snap position. Now, pay attention to defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh here. He gets in Bridgewater's face, which forces Bridgewater to float the ball higher than he wants to, causing him to overthrow McCaffrey by a pretty large margin. Whitehead already has momentum in that direction and makes the heads-up catch realizing how far the ball is traveling.
4th & 2 at TB 36 (6:08)
So, a punt essentially never made sense here. The Bucs didn't even take their defense off the field except for switching out returner Jaydon Mickens for safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to appease the Panthers. But make no mistake, Tampa Bay saw this fake coming from a mile away.
And so did Whitehead. He immediately comes downhill like a bowling ball straight through the C gap and into rookie safety Jeremy Chinn, stopping him after just a yard, if that. Chinn was lined up in the backfield offset from center to still allow the long snapper a path to the punter but… there's no reason for a safety to be in the backfield like that unless you're instead going to direct snap him the ball. Easy spot. Turnover on downs.
1st & 10 at CAR 25 (15:00)
The very first play coming out of the half, Carolina throws out a four-wide set with a bunch formation to Bridgewater's left. McCaffrey is lined up in the pistol right behind Bridgewater and they have wide receiver D.J. Moore to the right side. The Bucs are in their nickel package, with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul all with their hand in the dirt. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett is standing up and has Whitehead in the box over his right shoulder over the B gap.
Right tackle Taylor Moton kicks out to take Barrett while Suh draws a double team of both the center and right guard, before the right guard has to eventually bail out to the second level with Lavonte David coming down. It looks like Whitehead is Moore's responsibility, but Whitehead beats Moore through the gap and meets McCaffrey in the backfield for a loss of one, instead.
1st & 10 at CAR 7 (4:44)
This time, Whitehead is the deepest safety with rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. in the box. The Panthers are in 11 personnel with an attached tight end to Bridgewater's right. He's under center with McCaffrey lined up behind him right at the goal line. The Bucs are in their nickel package again in what looks like man coverage. Whitehead is the roamer here.
Bridgewater hands the ball to McCaffrey who initially thinks he has a hole up the middle before seeing White waiting for him. He tries to redirect and get behind the right guard but White turns on the jets to get the initial set of hands on him. With the delay in McCaffrey's decision, Whitehead has now had time to diagnose the play and shows off his speed, coming down to help White finish off the tackle.
This defense uses safeties interchangeably. So while Whitehead's strength may lie primarily in the box and against the run, he needs to do more than that. A skill like that comes with comfortability and in the second year within this defense, Whitehead has taken a big step forward in that regard. It's showing up in the form of his increasing versatility and ability to read the field.