The 2012 season was a rough one for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ secondary, a season in which they played nine different cornerbacks. (Only the Raiders started more.) After bringing in CB Eric Wright and using a sixth-round draft choice on CB Keith Tandy (West Virginia), the team broke training camp with a group that included former first-round pick Aqib Talib on one corner opposite Wright, and E.J. Biggers in as nickel back. Former star CB Ronde Barber moved to free safety and his presence helped bring veteran leadership and playmaking ability. Finally, the Bucs added SS Mark Barron from Alabama in the first round of the 2012 draft to complete the defensive backfield depth chart.
The Bucs defense started out alright, giving up 303 yards to Cam Newton in a Week one road game in Carolina, but in Week two the pirate ship had sprung great big leaks. QB Eli Manning torched the Buccaneers on his way to a stunning 510 yards through the air. To make sure the boat went down, Aqib Talib was suspended October 13 for violating the League’s substance abuse policy. Not to be outdone, Eric Wright was suspended in November for the same reason, leaving the Buccaneers without the two corners they invested in most heavily.
Assessing the Bucs’ secondary play is pretty straightforward and you can do it at home. Place a piece of raw meat in your garbage and leave it for five days, then open the lid. That smell? It’s the Bucs’ secondary from 2012. Tampa surrendered a league-worst 4,758 passing yards and 30 TDs, which is only three less than the Eagles league-leading 33 – not the company you want to be keeping. Wright was thrown at 56 times (all stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus) and allowed 35 completions (63 percent) to go with two TDs and six passes defensed. E.J. Biggers, whose role grew as the season wore on, played 816 snaps, was targeted 80 times and allowed 49 receptions (61 percent). Undrafted free agent CB Leonard Johnson started for Wright following the latter’s suspension and allowed 43 completions in 60 attempts (64 percent) in 594 snaps and defensed six passes. As you can see, none of the Bucs defensive backs could play the ball well enough to prevent opponents from hauling in passes.
The safety play was not much better. While some viewed Ronde Barber’s switch to FS was a success and the stats support this. Barber was a workhorse in the secondary, playing 1102 snaps. He was thrown at 58 times and allowed 41 receptions (72%), but allowed only one TD. Backup FS Ahmad Black surrendered three TDs in only 431 snaps. First-round rookie SS Mark Barron played 1105 snaps (matching Barber’s contribution) and defensed seven passes. But he also tied Leonard for the lead in allowing four TDs, while opponents caught 65% of passes thrown into his coverage.
What went wrong? Two things stand out: the Bucs run defense was stout, which forced teams to the air. Tampa Bay surrendered only 1320 rushing yards in 2012, which led the league. Unfortunately, this outstanding effort was negated by their softness in coverage. The Bucs generated only 27 sacks, more than only Oakland and Jacksonville. The pass rush has to improve for the secondary to have half a chance, no matter who is playing back there.
What’s the solution for the secondary? At present, the top two CBs are Wright and Johnson. Barber may retire or not be back, which means the Bucs will need a nickel defensive back. Barron is entrenched at SS but he needs to improve in coverage, although the addition of Dashon Goldson will help Barron greatly. This offseason the Bucs have been shockingly laid back about addressing issues at cornerback. Biggers was allowed to sign with the Redskins, and a deal for All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis is moving slowly, and may not happen at all. Luckily, cornerback is one of the deeper positions in the 2013 draft, with as many as 40 draftable players. A player like FSU’s Xavier Rhodes may be available when the Bucs pick at 13, and look for them to take at least one corner regardless of round.
Overall, the Buccaneers’ secondary was depressingly bad in 2012. But there is certainly hope for 2013, but work has to be done to see an marked improvement.
2012 Final Grade: D