The biggest story out of Tampa Bay in 2019 was undoubtedly the unique—and I use that word as both a positive and a negative—season from Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.
Winston, who led the NFL in passing yards with 5,109, became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season; when it was good, it was elite, but when it was bad it was historic. Winston also threw an NFL-record seven pick-sixes during his roller-coaster campaign.
But while Winston was getting all the headlines, it was the Buccaneers’ defense that was making headway.
Going into the season, the Bucs defense was both young and unknown. Of their 11 starters, five were either 24 years old or younger, and that number only increased as rookies like cornerback Jamel Dean, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and safety Mike Edwards began seeing more and more playing time as the season went on. The defense was also starting newcomers Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line.
As we now know, the defensive line ended up being more than fine. Barrett was the league’s sack leader with 19.5, fellow pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul recorded 8.5 sacks in just eight games as a starter, Suh and Vita Vea became a dominant force on the inside, and players like William Gholston and Carl Nassib were good rotational pieces.
As for the linebackers, Lavonte David was solid, as he has been throughout his Hall of Fame-worthy career. When rookie linebacker Devin White, the team’s No. 5 overall pick from the 2019 NFL Draft, recovered from an early-season knee injury, he, too, was a positive force in the middle.
It was a tale of two halves for the Buccaneers’ defense in 2019. Those box players mentioned above played well throughout the year, and certainly getting a healthy Pierre-Paul and White back for the second half of the season helped the Buccaneers defense end the season on a high note. But it was that young secondary that took a big leap late in the year that made all the difference.
Through their first nine games, the Bucs secondary gave up 2,690 passing yards, which averaged out to 298.8 yards per game. Six out of the nine quarterbacks the Bucs faced during that stretch threw for more than 300 yards, including rookies Daniel Jones and Kyler Murray. They also gave up 490 passing yards to Jared Goff.
But why did I choose to say the first nine games instead of just the first eight to split the season in half? The reason for that is because there is an exact moment in the season where everything started to turn for the young secondary.
On that play, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Andy Isabella took a pass 55 yards down the field. That was the moment Bruce Arians had enough. Not of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles or even of the defense as a whole.
He had had enough of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
Hargreaves, who was the outside cornerback No. 28 on the right side of the field, didn’t exactly give it his all on that play, and unfortunately for Hargreaves, it wasn’t the first time a play like that showed up on his tape over the last four years.
Arians had only been there for three months of it, and he had enough.
That next week Arians cut the starter and former first-round pick just like that.
“I love Vernon, he’s a great kid. But there’s just too many times on film his effort wasn’t good enough,” Arians said. “A player controls two things: He controls his effort and his attitude. If those things don’t match up to what you want as a team, then it’s time to move on.”
Shortly after he was hired, Arians said of his standards for his players, “you can't play hard, you can't play here. That's unacceptable." After that Cardinals game he said Hargreaves “didn’t hustle enough”, and the next thing you know he was gone.
That move was a message to the team as much as it was a change on the depth chart. It was a statement to the players who were still in the locker room that anything less than your best will not be tolerated—a message that may have been said but wasn’t often held up for the past decade in Tampa.
The players who heard that message the loudest: the young secondary players, specifically second-year cornerback Carlton Davis, and rookie cornerbacks Murphy-Bunting and Dean.
With Hargeaves out, Davis assumed CB1 duties. Davis was already a constant starter on the field before Hargreaves’ departure, but from that moment on he was the guy to guard another team’s best receiver. The best he faced during that second-half stretch in 2019: Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins exited that game with five catches from nine targets for just 23 receiving yards. Not only were those 23 yards Hopkins’ lowest total of the season, but it was also the first time Hopkins was held to less than 25 yards since 2017. It was the lowest yardage output of Hopkins’ career when he saw at least nine targets.
The game plan for Hopkins, according to Arians himself: “basically just Carlton Davis.”
At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Davis was drafted for his size. He has the arm length and the strength to play press-man coverage against those WR1s. The thing is, even when he was at Auburn, Davis was a bit too hands-y.
Through the early parts of his career, Davis couldn’t find the sweet spot for being physical with receivers and not getting called for penalties. The two clips are evidence of the progression Davis has made. Yes, he was physical in those plays and potentially could have been called for P.I., but his physicality was strong yet subtle. That’s the true sign of a player of his mold coming into their own and showing the coaches he was ready for bigger assignments.
Next, I want to touch on Murphy-Bunting.
When Hargreaves was on the team, Murphy-Bunting played a lot of slot responsibilities. In today’s NFL, that’s no easy task; Murphy-Bunting expectedly struggled. But there comes a time in the first two years of a young cornerback’s career when those struggles are either stepping stones for success or signs of a guy who can’t hang. It took a lot less than two years to show that the early lumps Murphy-Bunting was taking getting beat in coverage were forging him into a better cornerback.
The first play showed Murphy-Bunting being comfortable with spacing and recovery speed. The play above showed how the plays where he was beaten early in the season turned into a film session in his head, which became recognition in the final games of 2019.
That play was all about communication and recognition. Murphy-Bunting had the utmost confidence in them both on his end, and that’s why that play went from a six-yard gain to six points the other way. Murphy-Bunting proved that he is quick enough and now comfortable enough for a full-time slot role.
Though Davis stepping up and Murphy-Bunting improving on his early playing time were crucial, there was arguably no more important piece to the Bucs secondary puzzle than the emergence of Dean.
Dean played a total of three defensive snaps in the first eight weeks of the season. As the team warmed up for their Week 9 contest against the Seattle Seahawks, Davis suffered a hip injury that forced Dean into a starting role just minutes before the game. Though it wasn’t perfect after that, Dean’s impact was felt weekly. According to Pro Football Focus, Dean forced 14 incompletions from then on out, the most of any rookie cornerback. He finished the season as PFF’s highest-graded rookie corner.
Dean was the Bucs’ third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Usually, cornerbacks who have the kind of impact Dean did are selected in the first round. What held Dean back from being drafted higher wasn’t a question of talent, but health. Dean entered the NFL having torn his ACL and meniscus twice in the same knee in high school and suffered another knee injury during his time at Auburn. There was a good chance he wasn’t even going to play football again.
When healthy, Dean is a rare breed for the cornerback position. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Dean presents the same man coverage potential Davis does. What makes dean Rare is that he pairs that size with elite speed. His 4.30 40-yard dash, 41-inch vert and1 30-inch broad jump were all in the 90th percentile for the position.
That athleticism shows up on tape very easily as an outside cornerback. As you can see in the clips above, Dean sometimes doesn’t even know how athletic he is. In the first play, he caught up with the speedster Kenny Stills like it was nothing, and on the next play, he trailed his man with ease before stretching out for the interception.
Through the season, Dean also covered the likes of D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Will Fuller in a manner that seemed far too easy. For Dean moving forward, it’s really just about being more comfortable and controlled. If he can get that done, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a receiver he can’t hold his own against.
Going back to the reason I chose the first nine games of the season as the sample size instead of just the even eight-game split, if you remember, the Bucs had six quarterbacks pass for more than 300 yards during that span. After Week 9, they didn’t have a single passer eclipse 300 yards. That included quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Deshaun Watson.
From the first glance of what the Bucs secondary looks like in the A.H. (After Hargreaves) age, with Davis on the outside handling WR1s, Dean on the outside masking secondary threats, and Murphy-Bunting in the middle against versatile slot options, another year together should yield only better communication, as the last seven games of 2019 become less of an exception and more of an expectation.