There's no way around it: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary looks different heading into the December playoff stretch drive than it did a month ago. For that matter, the Buccaneers' secondary a month ago didn't look much like the one the team fielded on opening day.
The safety tandem has been both consistent and effective, with 16th-year veteran Ronde Barber playing at a Pro Bowl level at free safety and helping rookie first-rounder Mark Barron make the NFL transition at strong safety. At cornerback, however, the team has repeatedly had to dig deep and readjust.
On Monday, Tampa Bay Head Coach Greg Schiano confirmed that Eric Wright, who started the team's first 10 games at right cornerback before missing Sunday's contest with an Achilles tendon injury, has been suspended by the NFL for four games. He will be eligible to return in Week 17.
Wright is one of nine different cornerbacks who have been on the Bucs' 53-man roster this season, and almost all of them have played either extensively or in significant cameos. That also does not include Barber, whose multi-faceted role on the Bucs' defense sometimes puts him in the slot or in other spots more commonly associated with cornerback work than safety.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay's four-deep rotation at cornerback included Leonard Johnson, an undrafted free agent rookie who started in Wright's place; LeQuan Lewis, another undrafted rookie who spent the first month of the season with the Dallas Cowboys; and Danny Gorrer, a third-year pro signed in early November who had 14 games and one start of NFL experience. Barring any additional necessary maneuvers, those three and starting left cornerback E.J. Biggers will continue to play extensively, with Myron Lewis also in reserve and second-year man Anthony Gaitor eligible to return from injured reserve after one more game.
And that's fine with Schiano and his staff. It would be hard to claim that this was the secondary the Buccaneers planned heading into 2012, but Schiano has seen enough to have quite a bit of trust in his young cornerbacks. That trust helped the team pull the trigger on a move of Aqib Talib to New England at the trade deadline.
"I think it probably lends to the confidence that we have in our young players that we felt we could do that and it was the best thing," he said. "Every decision we make is what gives the organization the best chance to win. When we made that decision that's what we thought was best."
The Bucs' defensive rankings have an unusual schism in them this year, in that the rush defense is first in the NFL while the pass defense is 32nd. Of course, that is based on yards, and while the Tampa Bay defense has admittedly had an issue with surrendering big plays, it has also been a big factor in the team's six wins. With 22 takeaways, including 16 interceptions, the secondary has made a lot of big plays, as well.
That was certainly the case against Atlanta, in which Julio Jones' 80-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was the roughest moment for a defensive backfield that competed hard against the NFL's third-ranked passing attack.
"The guy who was covering on that 80-yard pass [Johnson] played really well other than that 80-yard pass," said Schiano. "They're a bunch of young kids that are trying to do the things we're asking them to do. You saw a new face out there in Danny Gorrer, who I think competed his rear end off. That's what we need to do, we just keep coaching them and they'll keep practicing. They're going to get better and to get Gaitor back in a couple of weeks, that's going to help, so we'll keep moving forward."
The Bucs catch Peyton Manning next Sunday in Denver and still have return dates against Ryan and Drew Brees. The tests aren't going to get any easier for the Bucs' young defensive backfield. But they aren't about to back down.
"I think E.J., Leonard, Danny, LeQuan…they all played physical, aggressive football [against Atlanta," said Schiano. "They didn't shy away from anything. They didn't always get it done but they didn't shy away. It wasn't too big for any of those guys. You wouldn't suspect that it would be for E.J., he's played a lot of football, but there are some guys that haven't played a lot of football on Sundays and it's fun to coach them. They're into it and it's great. Ronde is helping them back there…it's Ronde playing with a bunch of young guys and it's good. We'll keep getting better."