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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Developing Depth for the Long Haul

With Carlton Davis back in top form and a number of reserves stepping up to make timely plays, the Bucs hope they are cultivating the kind of depth often needed for deep playoff runs

On Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the game with their three opening-day cornerbacks on the field for just the third time in 2021. And for the third time in those three games, they weren't able to make it all the way to the end with all three on the field.

It started in the first quarter of the season opener when Sean Murphy-Bunting suffered a dislocated elbow and subsequently spent the next eight games on injured reserve. Two weeks later, Jamel Dean suffered a knee injury in Los Angeles that kept him out of the next weekend's game at New England. And in that New England contest Carlton Davis incurred a calf injury and joined Murphy-Bunting on injured reserve.

It wasn't until Week 13 in Atlanta, after Davis was activated from I.R., that he, Dean and Murphy-Bunting were all in the lineup together…and Dean subsequently sustained a concussion in the first half. Dean cleared the concussion protocol and was able to start the game against Buffalo but left early after he started to feel ill. On Monday, the Buccaneers were evaluating if Dean's illness was related to his previous concussion or just some kind of cold.

All of that cornerback shuffling – which also included hamstring and calf injuries and an I.R. stint for in-season addition Richard Sherman – has forced the Buccaneers to cultivate additional depth at the position in the likes of Sherman, Dee Delaney, Ross Cockrell and Pierre Desir. The Bucs now look well-poised to handle the stretch run in the secondary, particularly when safeties Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards return from a calf injury and a suspension, respectively.

In fact, the Buccaneers appear to be building depth all over the roster just in time for the last couple months of the season/postseason. Andrew Adams, for instance, played 66 snaps at safety against Buffalo, had five tackles and two passes defensed and made a big impact on several occasions as a blitzer. Defensive lineman Patrick O'Connor only needed eight defensive snaps to contribute a tackle and a quarterback hit, though the tackle actually came on a fake punt. Cockrell ended up playing 66 snaps due to Dean's departure and had five tackles and a quarterback hit. Sherman saw a little action in the dime and a little at safety and had the game's only takeaway on a second-quarter interception.

"It's going to give us great depth," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Just look at the way Anthony Nelson and Cam Gill are playing. Pat is making plays all the time whether he's on defense or special teams. It takes all 53 and the 48 that dress on Sunday. In big, big games like this one it's going to take every single hand."

Sherman's 20 snaps were of particular interest. The five-time Pro Bowler joined the Buccaneers in late September due to the aforementioned rash of injuries at corner and immediately started three games before he ran into his consecutive leg injuries. When he came back to practice last week he began cross-training at safety, and after being activated on Friday he suited up ready to play a versatile role. He handled it well, as Arians had expected.

"He had a good interception and put himself in position a couple of times," said Arians. "I think there was only one mistake on a check that we didn't make. Richard's so smart and just gave us depth. He has great ball skills so if it's around him he's going to get an interception."

And, of course, the Buccaneers will only really have depth behind the starters if the starters are on the field, and the return of Davis has quickly made a noticeable impact. After returning with a three-pass defensed effort in the Week 13 win at Atlanta, Davis had five tackles against Buffalo and was in good position on two of the most important plays of the game.

Davis had man-to-man coverage on Stefon Diggs on third down from the Bucs' seven-yard line with 28 seconds left and plastered the Bills' receiver on a route to the left pylon, with Josh Allen's pass sailing over Diggs' head. After the Bills settled for a field goal to send the game to overtime, then won the coin toss and got the ball first, Davis was once again isolated on Diggs on third down just a minute into the extra period. Diggs ran a six-yard pivot route with a stutter step at the beginning but never separated from Davis and once again Allen had no real window into which to throw the ball and it was incomplete.

The Bucs' front line has come up with eight sacks over the last two weeks and Arians credits tight coverage like Davis is providing as being part of the reason.

"I thought Carlton handled his own all day and did a great, great job in that ballgame," said Arians. "I thought he had great coverage on that play. He's going to be a physical player and a lot of those sacks are because he's back."

The Buccaneers have had fewer injuries on offense in 2021 and thus haven't had to test their depth as much, but they are happy with what they're developing at wide receiver nonetheless. With Antonio Brown out since Week Seven with an ankle injury and an NFL suspension, first Tyler Johnson and now Breshad Perriman are stepping up. Perriman got the most snaps as the third receiver in Atlanta but in Week 14 Johnson was on the field for 49 plays and Perriman for 26. Johnson pitched in with three catches for 17 yards but it was Perriman who walked the game off with a 58-yard touchdown catch in overtime.

"Yeah, the more you make plays, the more you get to play," said Arians. "I think Tyler [Johnson] got a bunch of his snaps back this week too. He's been playing good also. We'll just see how the game plays out with those guys, but I'm comfortable with either one of them in there."

The Buccaneers' roster is gradually getting healthier, which is a fine development as the playoff races come to a head. However, one never knows when the next injury will strike or what position will have its depth tested next. The Buccaneers are trying to be ready for whatever comes their way.

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