S.S. Mailbag: Defense, Defense, Defense

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one very famous game against Rich Gannon, the NFL MVP in 2002. That was, of course, Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of that same campaign, in which Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense sacked the MVP five times, picked off five of his passes and returned three of those for touchdowns. The Bucs won, 48-21, and raised the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the night.

Presumably, Gannon didn't enjoy that evening very much. Coincidentally, there was another game involving the Buccaneers, a dozen years earlier, that was something of a career milestone for Gannon, and which also didn't end go his way. Gannon's first career NFL start, for the Minnesota Vikings on September 30, 1990, came against Tampa Bay. The Bucs won, 23-20, with Gannon tossing two touchdowns and two interceptions.

What's the relevance for this little walk down Bucs-Gannon memory lane? Well, Tampa Bay will face the New York Giants on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones will be stepping in at quarterback, replacing Eli Manning. Jones will become the 19th quarterback ever to make his NFL regular-season starting debut against the Buccaneers.

Overall, the Buccaneers have prevailed in 11 of the 18 games they've played against quarterbacks making their respective first starts, although three of the last four have gone the other way. The list is a curious mix of big names and some players who never really got a lasting foothold in the NFL. Here are all 18 of those debuts:

1. Marcus Mariota, Sept. 13, 2015: Tennessee 42, Tampa Bay 14

2. Austin Davis, Sept. 14, 2014: St. Louis 19, Tampa Bay 17

3. Geno Smith, Sept. 8, 2013: N.Y. Jets 18, Tampa Bay 17

4. Curtis Painter, Oct. 3, 2011: Tampa Bay 24, Indianapolis 17

5. Quinn Gray, Oct. 28, 2007: Jacksonville 24, Tampa Bay 23

6. Jason Campbell, Nov. 19, 2006: Tampa Bay, 20, Washington 17

7. Henry Burris, Dec. 29, 2002: Tampa Bay 15, Chicago 0

8. Randy Fasani, Oct. 27, 2002: Tampa Bay 12, Carolina 9

9. Mike McMahon, Dec. 9, 2001: Tampa Bay 15, Detroit 12

10. Quincy Carter, Sept. 9, 2001: Tampa Bay 10, Dallas 6

11. Moses Moreno, Nov. 29, 1998: Tampa Bay 31, Chicago 17

12. Kerry Collins, Oct. 1, 1995: Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 13

13. Brad Goebel, Oct. 6, 1991: Tampa Bay 14, Philadelphia 13

14. Rich Gannon, Sept. 30, 1990: Tampa Bay 23, Minnesota 20

15. Mike Kelley, Oct. 11, 1987: San Diego 17, Tampa Bay 13

16. Todd Hons, Oct. 4, 1987: Tampa Bay 31, Detroit 27

17. Marc Wilson, Oct. 18, 1981: Oakland 18, Tampa Bay 16

18. Phil Simms, Oct. 7, 1979: N.Y. Giants 17, Tampa Bay 14

So, almost exactly 40 years ago, the Giants, who were 0-5 at the time, decided to bench Joe Pisarcik in favor of their first-round pick from that year, the rookie nicknamed "Prince Valiant" by his teammates. Phil Simms opened the season's sixth game, at home against a Buccaneers team that had famously began the season 5-0. Simms and the Giants won, although he only threw 12 passes and completed six of them for 37 yards. As they prepare to face another first-round rookie quarterback making his first start for a winless Giants team, the Buccaneers would gladly take the same passing stat line would want the game's outcome to be radically different.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 3 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Now let's get to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Great interview with Kevin Minter, and when he talked about having multiple helmets and being designated to wear the green dot if Devin White went out, it led me to my next questions. Why isn't Lavonte designated as the back-up playcaller to Devin White, and for that matter, while there are two MLB positions, it appears that they are different. Can you explain the difference between what Devin/Kevin does versus Lavonte/Deone?

Thanks,

Chris from Orange County CA, via email to saltydogs@buccaneers.nfl.com

As you can see from the tag there at the end, this question was actually aimed at the Salty Dogs podcast, and I'll make sure to cover it in next week's episode, but I thought it was interesting enough to share with everyone here in the mailbag, too. The answer is going to further emphasize something the new coaching staff has been saying since they arrived: Even though the Bucs do now identify as a 3-4 defense under coordinator Todd Bowles, a lot of what they do is very similar to 4-3 looks you are used to.

If you didn't list to this week's episode, as Chris did, then you missed reserve insider linebacker Kevin Minter explaining that when he came into last Thursday's game to replace the injured Devin White, he had to switch helmets. He has several with him at every game, and at least one of them has a green dot, which means it has a radio receiver in it. Only one player can have a radio helmet on the field at once, and he is the one who gets instructions from the coaches and calls the plays for the rest of the defense. That was White before he got hurt, and Minter took over those duties when he came in.

I think Chris might have missed one other part of Minter's discussion on the topic. He said that the Bucs might actually give David the play-calling duties this week if White misses the game. It made sense for Minter to step in for White since he's a play-caller in practice and this was a sudden in-game change. But with a week to prepare the Buccaneers could choose to work David as the play-caller in practice and give him the role against the Giants. Before each game, each team has to submit a paper to the officials indicating which three players will have a green-dot helmet. This cannot be changed once the game begins. Having David do it would give the Bucs a bit more flexibility with the reserve duo of Minter and Deone Bucannon. David is on the field for every snap and if he's calling the plays the Bucs could choose by situation whether they want Bucannon or Minter in alongside him for any given situation.

The second part of this question requires a lot more explanation. The Buccaneers' 3-4 front includes two "inside linebackers," which in the Bucs' case is White and David. These are two different positions, though David is so talented that he could play either. The position that White plays is still called the MIKE, just like in the 4-3 defense (M is for MIKE and middle). The position that David plays is called the MO by our coaching staff but it is not a far cry from what we called the WILL in the 4-3, which is the position David was already playing. (Contrastingly, when the Bucs' offense faces a defense like what Bowles runs, they call the two positions the MIKE and the JACK, but that's neither here nor there.)

As the MO, David lines up on the weak side of the offense and White, the MIKE, lines up on the strongside. As such he's more likely to be taking on blockers than David, and David is more likely to be freed up to make tackles, though of course both will end up with plenty of tackles, just like the old duo of Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks always did. MIKE linebackers are traditionally a little bigger than MO linebackers, the latter usually faster and rangier. David and White share a lot of valuable traits for both positions, but White is indeed bigger than David by about 10-15 pounds.

As reserves, Minter is more of a straight-up traditional MIKE than White, who could probably play just about anywhere. Bucannon is more of a versatile defender and can even play safety.

I've actually got a little bit more to write about the Bucs' defensive front and the strong and weak sides, but it pertains to another question I received, so let's drop that in now before I continue.

Who is the hidden gem on our team?

- ortizevs, via Instagram

So I already told you that White is the MIKE linebacker, lining up on the strong side. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers coaches call Shaq Barrett, whose position on the depth chart is one of two "OLBs" our outside linebacker, the SAM linebacker. That's exactly what the previous staffs always called the strongside linebacker in the 4-3 front. So that means Shaq is also going to be on the strong side, usually.

There are three down linemen in the base defense, and the starters are Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston. In this scheme, Gholston is the strongside defensive end. Gholston, Barrett and White "travel" together, which means they all move together to the strong side of the offense when it takes its place for the snap.

And Gholston is my answer to this question about the hidden gem so far this season. As a high-profile free agent signing and a former first-round pick, Suh and Vea are probably a bit too much in the spotlight to be consider hidden gems, even if they are playing well. Gholston, on the other hand, probably doesn't get nearly as much attention, and so far he is playing very well in Bowles' defense.

That makes sense, if you're aware a couple of factors. First, what the Bucs do on defense now is a lot like what they did under Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012-13. And Tampa Bay drafted Gholston in the fourth round out of Michigan State specifically to play the strongside end position in that defense. Obviously, the Buccaneers have moved on from Schiano several times since and used some other schemes, some of which fit Gholston's talents better or worse. In 2016, he had a very good year as perhaps the team's best run-stopper. When he got hurt near the end of the season and the Cowboys and Saints subsequently ran all over the Bucs' defense, it highlighted how much Gholston had meant to the run defense. He then got a nice new contract the following offseason.

The 2017 and '18 seasons didn't go quite as well for Gholston, who had slimmed down a bit in an effort to be a more productive pass-rusher. This offseason, Gholston put weight back on in anticipation of focusing on the strongside end role, where he is usually going to be asked to stand up blockers and keep them off the linebackers so they can make plays. That transition back to what was essentially his original role has gone very well. Gholston and the rest of the down linemen are the main reason Tampa Bay's run defense has been among the league's best so far.

Why doesn’t Sean Murphy-Bunting start?

- kingsoto09, via Instagram

I think it would be instructive to look back at the career of Brian Kelly in answering this question. I'm guessing most Bucs fans remember who that is, but for those who don't, Kelly was a cornerback drafted out of USC in the second round in 1998. He was a starter on the Super Bowl-winning team, leading the league's top-ranked defense with eight interceptions that season. In all, Kelly would play in Tampa for 10 of his 11 seasons, appearing in 130 games with 79 starts and recording 22 interceptions and 100 passes defensed.

By any measure, Kelly's career makes him one of the best cornerbacks in team history. If you were to make an all-time 53-man roster with five or six cornerbacks on it, he'd probably be in that group. That doesn't mean that Kelly, despite being the 45th overall pick in the '98 draft, was plugged directly into a starting role. Part of that was because the Bucs had used third round picks on Donnie Abraham in 1996 and Ronde Barber in 1997. Abraham was an instant starter and a difference-maker; Barber started slow as a rookie but won the nickel job during the Bucs' playoff run and was ready to break out big-time in 1998.

So, to begin the '98 season, with Kelly on hand as a rookie, the Bucs had Abraham and veteran Anthony Parker as the starter, with Barber as the nickel. When Parker got hurt, Barber stepped in and essentially never gave the starting job back for, like, 16 years! Kelly did get three starts when both Parker and Abraham were injured at the same time, but those were his only three starts as a rookie. Kelly was an important contributor and clearly part of the long-term plans for the Bucs' defense, but he finished his rookie season with just 27 tackles and one pick. He would start another three games each in 1999 and 2000 before essentially usurping Abraham for a starting role in 2001, Abraham's last year with the Bucs.

Now look at the situation into which Murphy-Bunting steps. He was the 39th overall pick, but he's also joining a team that spent second-round picks on cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart in 2018 and a first-round pick on Vernon Hargreaves in 2016. As the Bucs began sorting out their secondary under a new coaching staff this offseason, it was those three who got the first shot at the three basic starting corner positions (including nickel) even though Murphy-Bunting did have some very good days in practice. None of those three did anything to lose their holds on those jobs, and so the season began and there are your three getting all the snaps on defense. Given that the Bucs' defense is off to a very nice start, it doesn't seem likely there will be any significant changes at this moment.

That doesn't mean you should close the door on Murphy-Bunting getting to play defense this season. I am a firm believer that an NFL team should be constantly trying to add cornerback depth, because it's hard to find reliable corners and you almost always need more than three of them to get through a 16-game season. That was certainly the case last year. Though he's not a starter yet, we've already seen one corner, rookie Jamel Dean, get banged up in Week Two and he might not be able to play on Sunday against the Giants. If that had been any of the starting trio, then Murphy-Bunting would be getting his first chance for significant playing time. When Carlton Davis was briefly hurt and missed one play in the opener against the 49ers, it was Murphy-Bunting who came in in his place.

In the meantime, Murphy-Bunting is giving the Bucs a whole lot of value on special teams. Through two games he's played a team-high 46 of a possible 54 special-team snaps – that's every snap except the placekicks. He'll get his chance on defense – maybe, or even probably, this year – and if he can put together a career similar to Kelly's the Bucs will have gotten great value from that draft pick.

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