Watch: Dashon Goldson on opening up the defensive playbook
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a pair of heat-seeking missiles in their secondary. One of them will occasionally be deployed very near to the enemy's border.
As a franchise, the Buccaneers are familiar with heavy-hitting safeties. John Lynch patrolled the back end of Tampa Bay's defense for a decade and is remembered as one of the most fearsome tacklers in NFL history. Still, the current duo of Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron is striking; there may not be another safety pairing in the league with as much intimidating size and hitting power.
The Buccaneers drafted Barron out of Alabama with the seventh overall pick in 2012 and paired him with the very savvy Ronde Barber, who converted from cornerback in his final NFL season and played well enough to be a Pro Bowl alternate largely based on his wealth of experience. The 2013 offseason brought Barber's retirement and, a few months before that, the free agency acquisition of Goldson, who had won Associated Press All-Pro honors in San Francisco. Now it's Barron and Goldson, and that's a different animal altogether.
During the preseason, the Buccaneers' defense was as "vanilla" in its approach to play-calling as was the offense. In addition, Barron and Goldson saw only limited playing time as most of the team's starters only extended themselves past a few series in the third week of the preseason. Now the regular season has arrived and the Buccaneers, like the rest of the NFL's teams, are ready to open up their playbooks. How Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan employs Goldson and, especially, Barron is going to be one of the most interesting developments for Buccaneer fans to watch this fall.
Goldson is 6-2 and 200 pounds and he gained a reputation in the NFC West as a ferocious hitter. Barron, 6-2 and 213, carried the same rep in the rugged SEC and showed some of that potential last year in a very encouraging rookie season. Those two lined up next to each other in centerfield will be an imposing sight for opposing pass-catchers thinking of running deep, but they won't always be standing side by side.
As keen-eyed fans at Tampa Bay's recent training camp surely noticed, and as Sheridan confirmed this week, the addition of Goldson to the back end of the secondary is allowing the Bucs' defense to utilize a greater number of formations that have Barron "in the box" and closer to the line of scrimmage. That will mostly be seen when the Buccaneers are in a "sub" package to counter offensive formations with extra receivers.
"Really, it's limitless because Mark is so talented and so versatile," said Sheridan. "He can blitz, he can cover tight ends, he can hug-rush a back in man-to-man coverage. I think he'll give us a lot. He's an outstanding player who can do a lot of different things well."
Again, those options are the product not only of Barron's wide range of abilities but of Goldson's presence. The Bucs are confident in the veteran safety to cover a lot of ground and keep the defense from giving up big plays when it goes out of its two-deep look. And if they do want a second deep safety, they can still move back into that formation even if Barron initially walks up into the box.
"Yeah, he gives us a lot of different looks and a lot of different techniques we can play with when he drops down in on third down," said Sheridan. "From that alignment he can go back and play a back-end technique. So from a disguise standpoint you've got a lot of liberties with him."
The issue of disguising the defense might be particularly topical this week, as the Buccaneers are preparing to face a rookie quarterback playing in his first regular-season NFL game. Geno Smith, the former West Virginia star and 39th pick in the draft, has won the job in New York, and the Buccaneers will get the first opportunity to test him. Sheridan says multiple defensive looks may be the best way to do that…or the exact opposite approach might be best.
"When you're playing a guy like that, there are two trains of thought," said Sheridan. "You can try to throw a ton of stuff at him and make it confusing for him and try to overwhelm him that way. I think [Jets Offensive Coordinator] Marty [Mornhinweg] will do a very good job with him and not put him in a lot of bad situations. By the same token, if you think that as long as you play sound and solid and don't give up big plays, you're not going to count on a guy, maybe, in his first NFL game to come in and beat you by throwing for 400 yards. So, we're going to do some of both and you'll have to see how it unfolds."
The Bucs know they have the personnel to create confusion if that is the chosen tactic, especially in the secondary. What Goldson, a two-time Pro Bowler, brings to the Buccaneers' defense is obvious, and it's why he was on the top of Tampa Bay's shopping list when free agency started in March. Barron is still ascending to Pro Bowl level, but his new safety partner believes he can get there, too.
"Mark does a good job," said Goldson. "He's a good player and he has the potential to be great; we all see that. He's a big-bodied guy that can run. He can play in the box, he can cover guys and he's got range. When you've got an athlete like that you can play with the defense a lot."