In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 28-11 win in Jacksonville on Sunday, the team's defense got 377 of its 803 individual snaps on defense from players who are 24 years old or younger. Of the 426 snaps played by defensive backs and inside linebackers – everybody who's not a down lineman or an edge-rushing linebacker – 336 were supplied by players 24 or younger, including 286 from players 22 or younger.
A youth movement has been the theme of Tampa Bay's defense in 2019, and some of the resulting chapters haven't been particularly entertaining. The ups and downs one might expect from a very young player, especially a rookie, were at times multiplied by having so many of them on the field. But the rough times seem to be paying off in the season's second half, and that's particularly true of late. All of a sudden, the future looks bright for that young group, who have been entertaining in recent weeks, not to mention effective.
"That first and second-year bunch on defense – that’s going to be fun for a long time," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "It’s just going to get better and better. Just add a piece or two or just keep them together. I think the veterans that are over there are not old. Lavonte [David] looks like he’s a four-year guy [with] the way he flies around, and [Ndamukong] Suh’s playing at a high level. So, yeah, just keeping them all together and just continue to grow."
That young group is primarily comprised of players selected in the last two drafts, including inside linebacker Devin White, cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting and safeties Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards. The Bucs also drafted cornerback M.J. Stewart in 2018 but he has been sidelined for the past three weeks with a knee injury. White, Davis, Murphy-Bunting and Whitehead are all now full-time starters and Dean is close to that though he missed all but seven snaps on Sunday with a shoulder injury.
In the last two weeks, that group has helped the Buccaneers record two interceptions, 24 passes defensed, 11 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 5 forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. Tampa Bay held Jacksonville to a season-low 3.8 yards per offensive play and the week before limited Atlanta to 4.2 yards per play, also the Falcons' season-worst at the time.
The Buccaneers' defense appears to be coming together as a cohesive unit, which is leading to fewer busted assignments and communication mistakes. Atlanta and Jacksonville each got one big offensive play on its very first drive against the Bucs – a 53-yard catch by Falcons TE Jaeden Graham and a 39-yard grab by Jaguars wideout Dede Westbrook – but very little in the way of big plays after that. If one defines "big plays" as passes that pick up 20-plus yards and runs that go for 10-plus yards, the Buccaneers were giving up an average of almost seven per game through the first nine games. They have allowed only four in each of the last three outings, only one for a touchdown across those three contests.
Obviously, a serious uptick in the pass rush has made a difference and the stars of that group – Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib – are all a bit older. But, as coaches always say, pass rush and pass coverage go hand-in-hand, and most of that coverage has been provided by very young players. In addition, White, the rangy linebacker who went fifth-overall in this year's draft, has contributed quite a bit to the pass rush.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 13 matchup against Jacksonville.
"I think defensively, we’re finally understanding situational football a lot better," said Arians. "Guys’ communication, short-yardage, red zone, third down is becoming really fun to watch and watching the growth. Obviously, [we’ve been] rushing the passer extremely well for the last few weeks, but again on the back end, we’re holding our guys [and] we’re covering our guys."
Murphy-Bunting capped an incredible goal-line stand on Sunday with his second interception of the season, one play after White saved a touchdown with a diving pass break-up. The 2019 second-round pick now leads the team with two interceptions while White got his first pick in the same game and also scored on a fumble return. Those big moments add confidence to the young players that they can be playmakers in the NFL.
"It’s huge," said Arians. "Once you do it, you know you can. Devin's sacks last week, the interception this week [and] the touchdown will be huge for him and his growth. Sean – a second time for him now. All those kids are getting more and more. I see Mike Edwards playing faster and faster. I hope to get Anthony Nelson healthy soon [and] let him get back out there. Somebody just asked me what rookie probably has had the most impact. Of course, I started naming all of them and I forgot about [kicker] Matt Gay. He’s probably had the most impact of all of them. So, yeah, it’s been a great group."
Arians said the knee injury that cost White roughly a month early in the season delayed his development into a team leader, but that part of his game is starting to emerge now, too, particularly in terms of rallying his fellow young players. White is expected to be a leader for the Buccaneers' defense for a long time, and it's starting to look like that will be a very entertaining defense to lead.