On Monday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter suggested that rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves has improved significantly as the season has progressed in part because Hargreaves is clearly beginning to have fun on the field. Hargreaves' viral "Mic'd Up" feature on Buccaneers.com, which Koetter heard about from his kids, is pretty strong evidence that Koetter is on to something.
Hargreaves, who is coming off perhaps the best game of his young career in Sunday's win at San Diego, agrees and attributes that to greatly-increased comfort level in Mike Smith's defense.
"I'm just getting more comfortable," said the Buccaneers' first-round draft pick in 2016. "That's all it comes down to – just getting more comfortable, realizing I can really play with these guys and going out there and just having fun like I know how.
"To start, obviously, I was a little shaky, a little nervous, didn't really know what to expect starting off the first few games in the NFL. But as the games progressed, as we played more games, I got more comfortable. That's all it is, just me getting comfortable and getting back to myself."
To start, Hargreaves was put into a challenging dual role on defense, starting on the outside in base packages and moving into the slot in the nickel. Since most defenses find themselves in extra-DB sets about 40 to 50% of the time in an average game, that meant a big dose of both assignments. After three games, Tampa Bay's coaching staff switched gears and installed Hargreaves permanently on the outside, giving the nickel job to Jude Adjei-Barimah.
Hargreaves admits that learning two different positions was difficult but thinks it has paid off in the long run.
"It was tough, it was tough to play both," he said. "It was harder than I thought it was going to be. But, you know, I'm kind of glad that they threw me in the fire like that because now I know. I basically know the whole defense now. I can really play anywhere and that's exciting for me. I know what everybody's doing around me. Like I said, like I keep referring to, I'm comfortable. I'm comfortable, and that's the best way to be. Hopefully we can keep this thing and get to the playoffs."
That experience paid off when Adjei-Barimah was levied a four-game suspension by the league, which he is now halfway through serving. Hargreaves went back to his dual role in Week 12 against Seattle and Alterraun Verner came in and had an impact game of his own as the outside corner in nickel packages. The Bucs started the San Diego game with that same strategy but then changed up again when the Chargers hit some big plays in the passing game early. Rookie Javien Elliott came in to play nickel back and Hargreaves adjusted back to his previous role midstream. Not only did he then set up Lavonte David's pick-six with a critical pass deflection, but he made a big difference by correctly diagnosing several San Diego plays and communicating the information with his teammates.
That, too, comes with being comfortable in Smith's scheme, a process that took a bit longer than anticipated for the team as a whole but is now paying off in a big way. No defense has allowed a lower cumulative passer rating to its opponents (67.3) over the last four weeks than Hargreaves' group.
"Nothing's changed within the defense; I think we're understanding the defense," said the rookie. "I think a lot of people forget that it's a new system for everybody. We had to come in and learn all that, and like I said we're getting comfortable and we're learning it and it's showing."
Those four games all came after the Bucs had an extra-long and contemplative weekend following a Week Nine Thursday night affair with Atlanta. That was the second of two games in five days, with Oakland in town the previous Sunday. The Bucs lost both of those games to fall to 3-5 and the defense gave up nearly 1,100 yards, albeit in nine quarters thanks to a long overtime contest with the Raiders. Hargreaves said that five-day experience, and the break that followed was the turning point for him, and that certainly seems to be true of the defense as a whole.
"That Oakland game and that Atlanta game, that was the 'Welcome to the NFL' game [for me]," he said. "Both of those games, I had a rough one. But my confidence doesn't falter. I got comfortable, I learned from it. The guys had my back, they told me not to worry about it. Brent [Grimes], long-time vet, told me, 'Let it go. Let it go or it's going to kill you.' After that, I just started to have fun with it. That's what I do, that's when I play my best and it's working out for me.
"Like I said, we're all finally starting to understand it, really understand what the defense is and where we're supposed to be. We're making plays on the ball, and hopefully we can keep that going as well."