The Buccaneers finished the 2019 season with 96 passes defensed, the most of any team.
If we further break it down, the defense as a whole really came into their own around the halfway mark in the season. From weeks 9-17, the Buccaneers not only led in passes defensed with 63 (a full 13 more than the next closest team), the defense itself led in sacks (31.0), quarterback hits (77), defensive scores (4), and tied for second in fumble recoveries (16) and forced fumbles (14). Yes, the Bucs had the number one scoring defense in the back half of last year.
However, only one of those scores was on a pick-six. It belonged to cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who picked off Lions quarterback David Blough in Murphy-Bunting's hometown of Detroit. It was the picture-perfect play in so many ways, and one that 'veteran' quarterback Carlton Davis sees more of in the coming season.
Davis, who is the default elder of the secondary group at 23 years old, recorded 19 passes defensed, leading the team that led the league in that category. It was just one shy of New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who finished with the most of any player in 2019. What's even more remarkable is that rookie Jamel Dean finished the year with 17… after only seeing significant work in nine games. All of his 17 passes defensed came in weeks 9-17, and those 17 were the most of any player in that span.
But that isn't enough for this defense or for Davis.
"Me and Dean got our hands on a lot of balls, and a lot of them should have been interceptions," Davis said in a Zoom conference call on Wednesday.
The front seven, the starters of which are all returning for 2020, held up their end of the deal (i.e. pressure). That led to the aforementioned forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, making up the majority of the team's 27 total takeaways (which ranked fifth in the league, oh by the way). And though the Bucs were middle of the pack in interceptions with 12 on the year, Davis envisions that changing simply due to the comfortability they now have with Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' system.
"It's honestly about repetitions, about being comfortable and it's just about making the play," Davis said of turning those passes defensed by him and Dean in particular into interceptions. "We were young and getting used to a new system. I think with that season under our belt, it makes us a lot more comfortable to go out there and really play loose and make the plays instead of guessing and being unsure. The productivity me and Dean produced last year, we should improve as far as getting those interceptions and creating more turnovers."
Making those improvements in an unconventional offseason (to put it mildly) is no easy task but Davis hasn't stopped working just because it's seemed that the world has stopped turning. After all, football never stops, right?
"Training kind of never stopped for me," Davis said. "I understand the social distancing and everything that's going on, but I kept my schedule. Our team is going a great job as far as giving virtual workouts and making sure we're in shape."
From a secondary perspective at large, Davis and his fellow corners and safeties remain in constant contact. After coming together so well by the end of last year, continuing that communication and chemistry is paramount to carrying their comfort level into this coming season.
"As far as the playbook goes, me and the guys, we're getting together as a collective unit and doing the same thing in going over plays and making sure we're on the same page and using this time as we would use it if COVID never existed," said Davis. "As far as making sure we know every role on our defense and understanding what our coach wants us to do and how he wants us to do it. So, we've been doing a good job staying in contact and making sure we still have that chemistry."