Veteran CB Juran Bolden has the size and physical tools to handle some of the league's biggest receivers
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers resigned Juran Bolden this offseason, they not only solidified their nickel pass defense with a talented and physical defensive back, they gave themselves a capable backup for their two outstanding starting cornerbacks. Two games into the season, that investment is already paying dividends in both aspects.
Last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, Bolden stepped in for an injured Brian Kelly and played well, despite a Bucs loss. This Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, he could be asked to do the same, with Kelly still listed as questionable on the Buccaneers' midweek injury report with a turf-toe injury. How he fares against the Panthers' receiving tandem of Keyshawn Johnson and Steve Smith, the latter of whom may make his season debut this weekend, could go a long ways to determining the final outcome of Sunday's contest.
The Bucs were certainly given a boost of confidence by how seamlessly Bolden moved from his nickel role to a full-time job last Sunday.
"I think it was my personality and what I'm capable of doing," said Bolden, who has worked hard to conform his game to the Bucs' defense since first being signed in 2005. "I like a lot of man [coverage] more than zones. That's the biggest thing for me – I had to work on a lot of my zone play here. The guys I've know for so many years, they made me feel right at home. I felt comfortable, and I ran with it. I was ready to make plays and able to do some things out there."
Another explanation for Bolden's smooth transition may be found in the defensive scheme of the Buccaneers. As the nickel back, Bolden is the third corner who comes in on obvious passing downs, such as when the offense lines up in a three-receiver set. However, unlike other teams' nickel backs, Bolden usually plays on the outside with fellow cornerback Ronde Barber sliding into the slot. Manning the outside spot, an area of the field to which he is accustomed, allows the 6-3, 210-pound Bolden to match-up physically with the league's bigger receivers, such as Johnson or the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress.
Still, despite playing well in his first Buc start at left cornerback (he started two games as an extra defensive back last season), Bolden is not satisfied and feels he can contribute even more.
"Any time you give up more yards and you lose, you take it personally," Bolden said. "You look at what you did out there, and then you try and make adjustments. The coaches may have thought you had a hell of game, but you look on film and you're like, 'Well, I could have made that play.' You just basically sit down and analyze and think of what you need to do and just get out there and make a play next week."
Bolden's career NFL totals include 156 tackles, nine interceptions and 31 passes defensed, and last season he combined with Barber and Kelly for 222 tackles, 11 interceptions, three sacks and 47 passes defensed while helping to hold opponents to 183.1 passing yards per game. Bolden, alone, was responsible for a career-high 42 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes defensed.
The Buccaneers have confidence in Bolden to build on that production of a year ago whether he's playing in nickel situations or filling in for the injured Kelly.
"When someone goes down, whether it be Brian Griese a year ago or Shelton Quarles yesterday, by God the next guy steps up and plays and you have to play better than the starter, you have to play better than the guy you are replacing," said Head Coach Jon Gruden earlier this season, commenting on his expectations for players filling in for injured starters. "That is what championship football teams do and that is what some of these men are going to have to do. Our schedule doesn't lie, it is tough."
Tough, indeed. In their first two games, the Buccaneers lost to the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons, both of which are currently 2-0 and have yet to give up an offensive touchdown. This Sunday, the Carolina Panthers come to town, hungry for their first win of the season and playing well on defense. Bolden says turning the season around begins Sunday, and it begins with the veterans on the club.
"Being a vet, that's what you're supposed to do – take charge of this unit, not just the defense, this whole team," Bolden said. "We've got a lot of veteran guys here, and we know what it takes to turn the season around. We know what it takes to step up and make plays. I would expect everyone who is established or trying to establish themselves to step up and make some plays, including myself and whoever else."
For Bolden, it's just another challenge along a hard-fought road to the NFL. After playing at Mississippi Delta Junior College, Bolden went undrafted in 1995. He played one season for the Winnipeg Bluebombers in the CFL before joining the Falcons in 1996. After two seasons in Atlanta, he bounced around between the Falcons, Packers and Panthers, then landed in Kansas City in 1999. A second stint in the CFL was followed by a return to Atlanta in 2002, where Bolden started 14 games over the next two years, intercepting seven passes. He then signed as a free agent with Jacksonville in 2004 and was the Jaguars' primary nickel back that season before joining the Buccaneers in 2005.
A year's worth of strong play at the nickel back position and a contract extension later, Bolden had officially arrived. Now it's only a matter of staying at this level – something Bolden has proven he has the tenacity and resilience to accomplish.
"I like guys like that," Gruden said earlier in the season of his nickel corner-turned-starter. "He brings a lot to the practice field and to the football team. I like his talent level more than I like all the other stuff. I like his hair, I like all that stuff, but I like his playmaking and what he does for us."