The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass defense has improved significantly over the second half of the 2018 season, after starting out with some deep struggles. That's an interesting turn of events, given that injuries have continued to shuffle the lineup on that side of the ball for Tampa Bay, and the secondary in particular has been largely populated by young and/or inexperienced players.
Tampa Bay allowed more than 320 net passing yards in each of the first five games of the season, after which it was unsurprisingly ranked last in the NFL in that category. At the midway point, the Bucs still ranked 29th, but that number stands at 22nd with one week to go. Over the last seven games, Tampa Bay has allowed 203.3 gross passing yards and 187.7 net passing yards per outing, both of which are the third-lowest in the league in that span.
Some of that is situational, of course, as a couple of the Bucs' opponents in that span – most notably Baltimore – did not attempt a high number of passes. Tampa Bay's yards allowed per attempt in that same span is 7.2 which is just a little bit better than league average. Even that, though, is quite a bit better than the 8.9 yards per attempt the Bucs had been allowing up until the season's halfway point.
The Bucs' young secondary has definitely been helped by a pass rush that has gotten better as the season has gone on, but those defensive backs have improved their own games as well. That's particularly true in regard to giving up big plays in the passing attack. Tampa Bay has allowed just four completions of 20 or more yards in the last three games combined; in contrast, the team was giving up more than four of those per game through the first half of the season.
"I think our ability to generate rush has been one of the areas for sure," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "We’ve also cut down explosive plays which is important for us to get done – so that’s been a plus for us. Obviously, there’s much, much [more] room for improvement across the board. We’re having I think less mental errors and these type of things. The execution is what we’re striving to be as consistent as possible and I think we’ve taken some strides in that."
The Bucs are currently starting rookies at two of their four secondary positions, as second-round cornerback Carlton Davis and fourth-round safety Jordan Whitehead have become key contributors. Tampa Bay also drafted cornerback M.J. Stewart in the second round and he played extensively early but then missed five weeks with a hamstring injury, during which Javien Elliott re-emerged as the top nickel back. Whitehead is second on the team with 73 tackles to go with four tackles for loss and three passes defensed. Davis has contributed 38 tackles, one tackle for loss, three passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Both look like potential long-term answers in the Buccaneers' secondary to Duffner.
"I think [Davis] has got the [necessary] length and the speed and the change of direction," said Duffner. "He’s certainly a confident player – that’s a spot you need to be confident in. He’s got a lot of the attributes that we think are necessary for a guy to be a successful corner. So yeah, I’m excited about where I think he’s heading."
Duffner said that Davis actually can be too confident at times, but that seems like an easier problem to address than the opposite, especially for a cornerback. Head Coach Dirk Koetter also complimented Carlton's play in recent weeks on running plays on the edges, which should be a strength given his size. Whitehead, meanwhile, has lived up to a scouting report that called him a hard, downhill hitter despite his lack of prototypical safety size.
"He's another one that, as time goes on and he gets snap after snap, he's getting better," said Duffner. "He's a very tough player; he's not a shy guy by any stretch. We're all excited about where we think he's heading. He's an ascending player in terms of we think he's going to get just better and better with repetition."
The Buccaneers' season will end on Sunday without a spot in the playoffs, and certainly the overall defensive numbers will be less attractive than what the team was shooting for when the year began. But improvement in the secondary in the season's second half is encouraging, and that's particularly true for such future cornerstones as Davis and Whitehead.
* Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul appeared on the Buccaneers' first iteration of the weekly injury report on Wednesday, but that's nothing new. This will be the 12th time out of 16 games that Pierre-Paul has been included on the team's injury report.
This week, Pierre-Paul is working through knee and shoulder ailments. At other times during the season he's also dealt with injuries to his ribs, foot, hand, hip and shoulder. The list he has not yet appeared on, to the Buccaneers' pleasure, is injured reserve. Nor has he been inactive for a single game yet, even though his practice time over the last month has been severely limited.
"I’d say he set the tone for our team," said Koetter. "He set the bar extremely hard for everybody else. All the guys that have played significant time are hurting this time of year. They’ve got different aches and pains. JPP probably has four different things that could keep him out on their own. He’s set the bar very high for everybody else."
Pierre-Paul has been shut out in the sack department over the past three games but he still leads the team with 11.5 QB takedowns, the most by a Buccaneer since 2005. Even during those three games he has still produced 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery. His 19 quarterback hits are a team high, as well.
Pierre-Paul, who was acquired in a March trade with the Giants, admits that it has been a struggle to stay on the field through his various bits of injury misfortune, but it's obviously been appreciated by his new team. It also suggests that he's capable of an even higher level of production next year if he has better luck in that area.
"I think I did okay," said Pierre-Paul of his first year with the Buccaneers. "I think I could've done way better than I did this year, but injuries happen, man. You've got to fight through them and I've been fighting through injuries for the longest now, this whole year. It's probably one of my seasons that I've had the most injuries, but I fought through them all year and I'm still fighting. At the end of the day, I think I did okay. I'll come back next year, rehab my body right after the season and get it right for next year."
* The Buccaneers will finish their season on Sunday with a visit from the Falcons, which gives them an opportunity to forge a season split with Atlanta. The two teams went down to the wire in Atlanta in Week Six before the Falcons held on to a 34-29 victory.
The Buccaneers have already split with their other two NFC South foes, Carolina and New Orleans. The last time Tampa Bay split its season series with each of its three division opponents was 2008.
That 2008 campaign was also the last time the Buccaneers finished with a winning record at home, which is something they could accomplish again with a win on Sunday. The 2010 squad that finished with 10 wins split at home and won six of eight road contests; Dirk Koetter's 2016 team, which posted a 9-7 record, was also 4-4 at home with a winning record on the road. The 2018 Buccaneers are currently 4-3 in games at Raymond James Stadium.
That particular note may not be prominent on the minds of Buccaneer players and coaches, but finishing strong is. Koetter has already discussed with the players and his staff the importance of preparing for this final game with the same approach and the same desire to win as they have every other outing.
"Yeah, absolutely, I have talked to the staff about it," he said. "I’ve also talked to the players about it. This is pro football. We’re all paid to be doing a job and we’re all paid well to do our job. There should be nobody thinking about anything else but putting their best foot forward. Everybody is always being evaluated. Every game you’ve got a ton of guys that are either contracts up, they’re going into free agency, guys that are on the fringe. Same thing applies to coaches. That should never be something you’re thinking about."