Members of the Bucs' secondary, like CB Ronde Barber (20), exhibited their usual tight coverage during recent workouts
For nine seasons, beginning in 1977, Herman Edwards was a standard-bearer for the Philadelphia Eagles' defense. Though he went undrafted following his college career, Edwards was in the starting lineup for his first preseason contest as an Eagle, and he stayed there for every game in his Philly career, which included an appearance in Super Bowl XV.
Accordingly, Edwards believes in standards, and he coordinates a secondary that has lived up to them. Tampa Bay's pass defense has ranked in the National Football League's top 10 in each of his four seasons with the club, including a second-place finish the last two years.
"What these guys have done over the years, the numbers they've compiled...it's just outstanding," said Edwards of his charges. "And it's taken a lot of hard work on their behalf. They're a confident group and they enjoy each other's company, which makes it a lot of fun. They're all good mentors for the young guys, because the young guys can look at them and see what it takes. Every team has a different standard, and every coach has a different standard. These young guys that come here, they have to know the standard that we expect out of our secondary. To me, it's the best secondary in the National Football League."
As we make our way through the coaches' offices at One Buccaneer place in preparation for the start of training camp on July 23, we have to make a particularly long stop in Edwards' office. There are 14 players under his direction at this time of the year and, judging from the work in mini-camp and voluntary workouts, a true mother lode of talent. To make it more manageable, we'll start with the safeties and move on to the cornerbacks later in the week. Edwards was excited to talk about either group.
"What these guys have done in the last three years...they've worked at being the best secondary," he said. "Obviously, I might be biased, but I think they are. We might not be the most talented on paper, because you don't see a lot of first-round draft choices back there. You don't see a lot of guys that have the big names, like Deion Sanders. But you have a great secondary when you don't give up a lot of big plays, and over the last three years, these guys have done that."
There are six safeties currently on the Bucs' roster, headed by two-time Pro Bowl S John Lynch, an eighth-year player. As talented as the group is, only Lynch has played more than three seasons in the NFL or started for more than one year. Edwards addressed this group alphabetically.
Ashley Cooper: "Ashley Cooper is a hard-hitting guy. We like him; he's a physical guy that we think is going to be in the strong safety mold. He played at Mississippi State, and he's really a physical guy. What we're looking at with him is getting his knee well coming into camp. He's a little bit behind because of the knee problems – he really hasn't been able to practice. He practiced early but then his knee was bothering him. But we knew that coming out, that he had some knee problems, and hopefully we've got that all cleared up. But he's been good in the classroom, he's a bright-eyed kid that likes football."
David Gibson: "We like David a lot. I think the guy's going to be a physical player for us. Obviously, he's backing up John. Hopefully, he won't get a lot of playing time during the season, because that means John's not playing. And I'm not saying that against David, but it hurts you when you lose John in our defense. I think David is going to be a good guy to back up John, and John will do a great job of mentoring him and showing him what it takes to play that position.
"He's a raw guy, only played safety one year, really. So he's developing. I think what he's going to bring is a physical presence. You didn't get to see that in the spring, because we weren't in pads. Usually, guys like that don't show up a lot (in non-pads workouts), because, athletically, they're okay, they make plays, but they don't show up as much as the corners do. In the seven-on-seven and one-on-one (drills) you don't see them a lot. And we play so much 'cover-two' that they're playing halves, and so the ball's really not thrown down their side of the field a lot. And you don't tackle anybody, so you don't see them a lot. I think those guys will show up when the pre-season starts and we really start hitting people.
"We're looking forward to him having a good year for us and learning and developing into a good player. We're banking on him being a good player on special teams, fitting into that 'Dexter Jackson' mold, those types of guys. The Jeff Gooches...good players that play special teams for us. We're expecting him to do that, because he can run and he'll go hit people, and that's half the madness of playing special teams."
Dexter Jackson: "I think Dexter has really kind of jumped out on us and become the third safety. If we went into a game and somebody got hurt between John and Damien (Robinson), we'd put Dexter in there right now. He's a guy that's grown up a little bit, he's matured more than he was last year, he's paying more attention to detail. And he's really athletic. He's a guy that's a 'disaster' corner for us...he's played some corner for us this spring, also, and he has some ability to cover guys. And he's another big guy. When I told him he was going to play corner, he got down to about 190 pounds, but now he's going to play safety a little bit more, so now he'll get back to 198, almost 200 pounds. We're concentrating on him in the preseason as a safety, backing up Damien and competing for that position. He's obviously going to be a good special teams player – he did that for us last year. Dexter has the ability to make plays...that's what you see about him. He flashes. He'll make a play all of a sudden. If he can do that, that helps us on defense tremendously."
John Lynch: "I think John Lynch, obviously, has shown that he's one of the premier safeties in the league. He established that last year by making a lot of plays on the football in passing situations. The knock on him – however people get knocks on them – was that he didn't play the pass enough. He was a 'good hitter' but he 'couldn't cover guys.' But he did a great job. We asked him to play more man-to-man last year than he has ever played, and he wasn't noticed. That means he's covering his guy. He covered his guy well. And we put a lot of pressure on him in that we play a lot of 'cover-two' meaning he has to cover half of the field. He did a tremendous job of that, obviously.
"A lot of people talk about the Washington game, but what comes to my mind is the Detroit game. He makes a big play in cover-two going over the middle, he intercepts one that really preserves the game for us. He's made a lot of big plays. He made a big play against Chicago when they were coming down trying to score and it was 6-3. If he doesn't make that play, it's a touchdown. He's made a lot of key plays on the passing side. Obviously, his run defense is by far the best in the league. He makes tremendous tackles. He's a linebacker, basically, and we use him that way in our system. That's why he's so important. We've got a lot of great players...you talk about Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and all of those guys that play for us on defense. I think John sometimes gets a little bit overlooked on how good of a player he is. He's a guy that has to play linebacker on our defense, especially on first downs when we're trying to stop the run. He's the guy that's in the box most of the time. He's got a gap just like every player up there in our eight-man front. He's a good blitzer. He's an intimidating guy, there's no doubt about it. You've got to have a guy like that in the secondary if you're going to be one of the top secondaries in the league."
Damien Robinson: D-Rob is going into his second year as a starter and this is his fourth year in the league. I think D-Rob had a pretty good year last season, and I'm thinking that D-Rob is going to have a heck of a year this season. That's what I'm hoping. People say, 'Well, he didn't do this' or 'He didn't do that,' but what people forget is that it took John Lynch a little while to establish himself, too. Now, I'm not saying that D-Rob is John Lynch. But what I am saying is that D-Rob's a big man, 6-2, almost 215-pounds. He can run, he's got great range, he'll tackle you. I think he has now learned to play the position a little bit better than he did last year.
"What we want to get out of D-Rob is more plays down the field in the passing game. He did a good job in the running game, he really did. We've got two really good, physical safeties, and they're big guys. A lot of teams don't have that. And he's a guy that has the ability to chase the ball when it's in the air. He can make plays. If he can intercept six or seven balls, he's got a chance to be one of the upper-echelon safeties. The tackling part is there, but once you start intercepting balls, people start writing about you. The game he had against Green Bay – that's the Damien Robinson we need to see more of. If he can do that, then we've got a chance to be really, really good in the secondary."
Shevin Smith: "Shevin Smith has been here now three years, and he's a battler. He's one of the team favorites. He's a hustle guy, a very smart guy. He knows both positions, strong and free safety, and he has some play-making ability. He's a good guy on special teams and a really competitive guy. He just kind of wears on you. You like the guy because he shows up every day with a bright-eyed attitude, works hard, never says no, always yes. He works his butt off. He's been very important for us on special teams and will continue to be this year."