Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Secondary Topics | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about the secondary, mostly, as we discuss the arrival of Richard Sherman, the lack of a pass rush and more

sherman ss mailbagg

There's only one real story this week, and it's Tom Brady's return to Foxborough to face the Bill Belichick-led Patriots. Everything else is just static.

So, how do I work that topic into a mailbag intro? Clumsily, and with a shoehorn. Here's the tie-in: Tom Brady isn't the very first Buccaneer quarterback to play against one of his former teams, right? I mean, I'm pretty sure he's the first one to win six Super Bowls over 20 seasons and become known as the G.O.A.T with another team and then come to Tampa and win a Super Bowl and then play his former team which is still led by the man considered the greatest coach of all time all while having the chance to break the NFL record for career passing yards in front of thousands of fans probably still wearing Brady jerseys. So we haven't exactly had this storyline before, but we have had Buccaneer QBs going against their former clubs.

In fact, the king of this particular matchup is Brad Johnson, who like Brady started in a Super Bowl victory for Tampa Bay. Before coming to the Bucs as a free agent in 2001, Johnson had played for Minnesota and Washington. Before his time in Tampa was up, he would face those teams four times and win three of them, with very good personal numbers in every victory.

The Vikings were his primary victim. He faced them in both 2001 and 2002 and helped the Bucs obliterate them both times. On Oct. 28, 2001, he led Tampa Bay to a 41-14 victory by completing 18 of 25 passes for 214 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The next season, on the way to Super Bowl XXXVII, Johnson engineered a 38-24 beating of the Vikings by throwing for 313 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions on 24-of-31 passing. That was only the second time a Buccaneer quarterback had thrown five touchdown passes in a single game. Johnson's passer rating against the Vikings while with the Buccaneers was 143.3.

Johnson got two starts against Washington as a Buc, as well. The Bucs won the first one on October 12, 2003, 35-13, and he completed 22 of 30 passes for 268 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Washington got revenge the next year on Sept. 12, taking a 16-10 decision in which Johnson was 24 of 37 for 169 yards and one interception.

On the flip side was Josh McCown, who had the misfortune of coming aboard in 2014, which ended up being the 2-14 season that put the Bucs in position to draft Jameis Winston. McCown had been well-traveled before arriving in Tampa, playing for five other teams, and he got a little mini-tour of his former stops in 2014. He faced Carolina twice and the Bucs lost both, 19-17 and 20-14. McCown threw for just 337 yards combined, with three touchdowns and three picks. His stop just before Tampa was in Chicago and the Bucs lost to the Bears in November, 21-13. McCown threw a lot that day, completing 25 of 48 passes for 341 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Finally, he revisited Detroit in December and the Bucs lost 34-17. He completed 20 of 39 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Ryan Fitzpatrick was with the Buccaneers for two years and you would surely expect him to have faced some of his former teams given that he's now started for nine of them. Six of those came before his arrival in Tampa but, surprisingly, Fitzmagic only faced two of them as a Buccaneer, once each. First there were the Jets, who Fitzpatrick helped beat, 15-10, in 2017 with an efficient 11-of-15 outing for 187 yards, one touchdown and one interception. In 2018, Fitz and the Buccaneers played Cincinnati, another one of his former teams. He didn't start that game but came in after Winston threw four interceptions and nearly rallied the Bucs to a win from a 34-16 deficit. Fitzpatrick completed 11 of his 15 throws for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no picks but the Bucs still fell, 37-34.

There's a few old-timers on this list, too. Steve DeBerg got to play San Francisco, one of his two teams before the Bucs, three times between 1984 and 1987. All of them were losses and none had particularly pretty stat lines for the quarterback. A little bit later, Joe Ferguson spent a season with the Bucs in 1989 and had two games against Detroit, his former employer. These, two were losses without statistics worth rehashing. The Bucs' 1983 trade for Jack Thompson was a disaster in many ways and it also didn't help them beat Cincinnati, their trade partner, that year. Thompson actually had one of his more prolific outings as a Buc in that one, completing 30 of 40 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown but he also was picked off three times in a 23-17 loss.

I'm not 100% certain this list is comprehensive, but rounding out what I found were a Jeff Garcia start against San Francisco in 2007 and a Brian Griese start versus Denver in 2008. Both were losses, but Garcia had a decent game against the 49ers, completing 12 of 20 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown.

Of course, these days that stat line is about a half for Brady, who has already thrown for 1,087 yards through the first three games of this season. No matter what happens Sunday, the Brady-Belichick reunion will be the biggest story in the NFL; if Brady gets a win and a record at the same time, it will just be that much bigger.

And now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

How are we addressing Bucs secondary holes? Any prospective trades?

- @mister_singh: (via Instagram)

Well, by now you've seen one way that is being addressed: The Buccaneers signed cornerback Richard Sherman on Wednesday. Sherman is obviously one of the best cornerbacks of the past decade and, though he missed all but five games last year, he was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2019. Even if the Bucs aren't getting absolutely peak Richard Sherman, he is likely to still be an above-average cornerback. That's not something you usually find available late in September. Bruce Arians compared the signing to last year's midseason addition of Antonio Brown to a banged-up receiver group: "the best insurance policy we possibly can" get.

Both Arians and Sherman made it sound like it would be a long shot for the veteran corner to be ready to play much of a role on defense this Sunday in New England, but the Week Five game against Miami seems to be the target. Not only is Sherman a talented player in his own right but he's likely to have a strong positive influence on his younger teammates. I mean, he's seen it all at this point and is widely considered one of the smartest players in the league.

So, if you take Sherman as a one-for-one replacement for the injured Sean Murphy-Bunting than there really aren't any other 'holes' to fill, at least from a depth chart standpoint. Jamel Dean practiced today so he'll probably be ready to go on Sunday and Carlton Davis is still in the lineup. That's how the Bucs started the season, minus Murphy-Bunting, with Ross Cockrell and Dee Delaney in reserve.

But perhaps you mean 'secondary holes' as the ones that have allowed opponents to pass for a league-high 338.3 passing yards per game. I think there are three issues here: communication, technique and the lack of a pass rush. The Buccaneers believe they can improve the first two through practice and film study, and I fully expect the pass rush to come around. Jason Pierre-Paul is still sidelined by a shoulder injury but should be back before too long and the Bucs just have too much talent up front not to eventually start getting to the passer.

As for the communication and technique issues, that was a sore subject with Arians after Sunday's game in Los Angeles.

"It's very [concerning]," he said. "It was some communication and some just really bad technique. They knew the coverage, they just played it really [poorly].

"It's just a thing we've got to iron out. When we're playing coverage, we're not rushing and when we're rushing we're not playing coverage. It's a matter of just getting it fixed and ironing it out and hopefully [we] get on the board this week. Make sure we make those corrections and get it done this week."

I know when you watch a game like the one on Sunday and the opposing offense seems to be completing passes at will it's natural to think that the defense simply doesn't have enough talent and isn't ever going to get better. But defenses in general and secondaries in particular can get better during a season. We've seen it before. We saw it last year, in fact, when the Bucs had some pass defense struggles in the first three months but then settled down in December and the playoffs and performed very well.

The Bucs still have all of the players who made that improvement (minus Murphy-Bunting), plus now they've got Richard Sherman to help out. When the coaches and players say they have some communication and technique things to fix, they're not just issuing some vague platitudes; they actually have very specific ideas of what has gone wrong and how to fix them. So if you believe these players are actually as good as they were last year and the scheme is actually as good as it was last year, you have reason to believe they can in fact correct their problems and play tighter defense.

Scott, It's been awhile since I sent anything to you. What I would like to know is what I am missing. Everyone speaks or writes about what an elite CB Carlton Davis is. Really? What I see is a penalty looking for a place to happen. Does any other Buccaneer give away as many penalty yards to our opponent as he does? I know you can research that and let me know. Thanks.

- Susan Komon (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Carlton Davis has been penalized three times this season for a total of 37 yards. He was also the team leader in penalty yards in 2020 and 2019, but not by a wide margin either time. I provide these numbers not to bolster your argument that Davis is not an elite cornerback but to point out that he plays a position that typically lends itself to more penalties. I went through every team's penalty chart after three weeks and cornerbacks and offensive linemen were the penalty leaders for most clubs. And, Davis is a big corner known for a physical style of play.

It is accurate to say that Davis got feedback from the coaching staff early in his career about reducing his penalties, but those coaches also don't want Davis to change his overall style of play. They just want him to put his hands on the receivers less often. He did reduce his penalties from 12 in 2019 to nine last year; we'll see if he can do so again this year.

Cornerback Jamel Dean and tight end Rob Gronkowski have also committed three penalties this year, Dean for 31 yards and Gronkowski for 25. The Buccaneers have committed too many penalties as a team, in fact. They have received the third-most flags of team in the NFL, with 30, and are second in accepted penalties (27) and third in penalty yards (230). It seems a little unfair to me to single out Davis in this regard.

Davis has been flagged just once for defensive pass interference (DPI), which is obviously the worst one because it can come with a really high yardage loss. He also has one face mask penalty and one unnecessary roughness penalty. You are free to disagree, but I don't think a face mask flag is the result of being penalty-prone; those always seem fluky and unintentional to me.

As I said, I went through every team's penalty chart and I found 38 players who have had at least three accepted penalties against them. That include some well-regarded NFL cornerbacks like Washington's William Jackson, Tennessee's Janoris Jenkins and Dallas' Trevon Diggs (Diggs has four, actually). All three of Jackson's penalties are defensive pass interference. The two players with the most accepted penalties against them so far are offensive linemen – Connor Williams in Dallas and Lane Johnson in Philadelphia. Buffalo linebacker Dion Dawkins has actually been flagged a league-high six times but two were declined. Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo has four penalties, including two DPI flags, but we'll give him a break because he's a rookie getting acclimated to the NFL game.

I haven't broken this term out in a while but it's often useful in discussions like this: 'confirmation bias.' I'm answering your question as best I can, Susan, but I don't actually think I'm going to change your mind. You have heard people, particularly Bruce Arians, refer to Davis as one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks. But you watch games and your eyes tell you that, in part due to the penalties he draws, he is not actually having a positive impact on the team. I humbly suggest that the evidence that supports your feeling (the occasional flag…currently an average of one for 12.3 yards per game) is more memorable to you than the evidence that does not (many plays in which he provides strong coverage).

And there is evidence to support the idea that Davis is an elite cornerback. Since the start of the 2019 season, Davis has registered 41 passes defensed. That's the most in the NFL in that span and it's not even close. One can argue that a high number of passes defensed means a player is being thrown at a lot, which perhaps means the opposition is not afraid to throw in his direction. However, look at the top 10 on that passes defensed list since 2019 (it's actually 11 because five are tied for seventh): Davis, Jaire Alexander, James Bradberry, Denzel Ward, Janoris Jenkins, Joe Haden, Ronald Darby, Xavien Howard, Trayvon Mullen, Logan Ryan and Tre'Davious White. There are A LOT of cornerbacks on that list who are considered elite.

And Davis has done well when thrown at, beyond just the pass break-ups. We all know that the regular-season game against Kansas City last year was a rough one for Davis and the entire secondary, as Tyreek Hill absolutely went off. That game didn't help Davis's measurables, but in the 11 weeks before that game, Davis put up outstanding numbers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Over those 11 weeks he ranked eighth among qualifying cornerbacks with an opponent passer rating of 62.9, fifth in expected points added when targeted (-13.6) and 15th in yards per attempt allowed (6.4).

Another reason his coaches consider Davis elite is that they have occasionally used him as a shutdown defender on one specific receiver for the opposition and he has almost always performed marvelously in that role. He's contained the Saints' Michael Thomas three times in a row and also had good outings against the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams.

Yes, it would be nice if Davis committed fewer penalties, and he certainly is trying to do so. But I think the Bucs will take the occasional flag if he keeps playing at a high level in terms of coverage and pass breakups, and if he continues to play with such a physical style. To some extent, it comes with the territory.

will JPP play this Sunday?

- @scum666jose (via Instagram)

I'm not a huge fan of answering questions like this because I don't like speculating about injuries and I feel like when I do I often get it wrong. However, I'll touch on this briefly because I think there was a little clue in what Arians said on Monday. This was his answer to your very question:

"We'll wait and see. I've got to wait and see Wednesday. I don't foresee it, but knowing JPP anything is possible."

Okay, I guess that's more of a 'straightforward answer' than a 'little clue.' Most coaches like to keep injury information as close to the vest as they are allowed to, so for Arians to say, "I don't foresee it," says a lot to me. It says not to get your hopes up. Hopefully if he can't play he'll be back for the Week Five game against Miami.

What adjustments will be made from the Rams game this week against New England?

- @febuarysveryown_ (via Instagram)

Well, I touched on this above regarding the secondary. They have some communication issues to work out in terms of switching coverages. That's a matter of film study, meetings and practice. Of course, Todd Bowles and company will probably have a different game plan against Mac Jones than they did against Matthew Stafford, so I guess that would count as adjustments. One thing I would expect to see is tighter coverage from the defensive backs, less cushion given before the snap. Jordan Whitehead mentioned this in particular on Wednesday, so I take it that has been a point of discussion in the meeting room this week.

As I said above, I think the biggest issue for the defense so far, by a very wide margin, is the lack of a pass rush. The Buccaneers, who were seventh in the NFL in sacks per pass play in 2020, are currently dead last in that category and they have only three sacks so far. Does that mean they might need to blitz a bit more often? I'm not sure. Last year the Buccaneers' defense had a blitz rate of 38.1%; this year they are at 34.0% through three games. That's not really much of a difference. I'm not smart enough to know what adjustments a group of defensive linemen and outside linebackers can make to improve their pass-rush success but whatever it is I'm sure they're working on it. Put a lot more pressure on the quarterback and, believe me, the struggling secondary is suddenly going to look a lot better. Exhibit A: Patrick Mahomes and Super Bowl LV.

I don't think the offense needs to make many adjustments, and not just because it racked up 446 yards in the loss to Los Angeles. What it needs is a faster start, like it got against Atlanta in Week Two. The Buccaneers had a chance to take an early lead in L.A. as the defense got Stafford and the Rams off the field quickly on their first two drives. But the Bucs' offense also opened the game with three very brief possessions and punts before finally getting into gear. Had the Bucs been able to establish an early lead over the Rams, it could have changed the whole complexion of the game. It at least would have allowed the Bucs a chance to win in a shootout even if the defense still struggled.

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