Mid-Season Report: Linebackers

Geno Hayes is a young player with a high ceiling.
Geno Hayes is a young player with a high ceiling. /
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Geno Hayes is a young player with a high ceiling.
Geno Hayes is a young player with a high ceiling. /

We continue our mid-season breakdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by examining their linebackers.

I mentioned last time that the Bucs defensive front seven had been hugely disappointing so far this season. Coming into the year I felt that the Bucs defensive line would be improved considerably from last season and by virtue of that I felt that Barrett Ruud and the rest of the linebacking corps would have a lot more freedom to make plays. That has been far from the case so far this season.

The Buccaneers rank 30th against the run this year and are giving up over 140 yards a game on the ground. That’s not the type of defense a playoff caliber team plays. I’ve said time and time again you cannot hope to win in the playoffs if you can’t rush the passer and stop the run. The Buccaneers can’t do either.

The culpability of the linebackers in all of that is debatable. I’m of the belief that while the defensive line has played extremely poorly all year, the linebackers haven’t helped much either. There are a number of problems facing this unit right now too, but unlike the D-Line, I don’t know that it’s as coach-related.

I think with the linebackers the problem may be more a personnel-related issue. The linebackers are where you want to see them, all near the top of the team in tackles with Barrett Ruud, the middle linebacker, leading with 60. But as we all know, stats lie. When you watch this Bucs defense you don’t see the linebackers playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage, they’re making tackles five or six yards down the field.

A lot of that can be attributed to the line getting blown back and the guards getting to the next level, but at the same time you have to have some linebackers that can get off blocks a little better. I know a lot of fans like Barrett Ruud, but I think his time as the Bucs MLB may be waning. I like Quincy Black and Geno Hayes, neither are great linebackers yet at this point in their careers but I think they can both continue to develop. Hayes in particular is just 23 years old and has a very high ceiling.

Is it time to replace Barrett Ruud?
Is it time to replace Barrett Ruud? /

Ruud on the other hand has never really developed into the player we hoped he would be. He does make the occasional play and he does wrap up well on tackles, he’s a solid linebacker, but he’s never become the dynamic player in the middle that the Bucs hoped he would be. He’s also not a vocal leader and that’s something the Bucs need desperately on defense right now. I typically look to the linebackers to provide leadership, to the middle linebacker in particular. Ruud isn’t a rah-rah fire you up type of guy.

I think that’s what this Bucs defense needs right now. They need someone to kick them in the butt and get them a bit more fiery from time to time. They need someone to call guys out when they don’t play with discipline or they draw a dumb penalty. That kind of leadership doesn’t exist on the Buccaneers and it’s becoming a big problem.

It’s not just a lack of leadership either. The pass-rush is typically supposed to come from the front four in the 4-3 but even when they do blitz the linebackers, it’s typically ineffective. This group doesn’t get to the passer that well, and they don’t cover exceptionally either. Look at how the Falcons moved the ball in the air last weekend and you will see that half of the yardage came to backs and tight ends. That’s usually on the linebackers too.

This just isn’t a dynamic group, Hayes may develop into one, but at this point none of them are really playmakers. They’re borderline under-sized and they don’t really excel at anything in particular. They would all be serviceable with a better defensive line, but without solid play from the front four they’ve been pretty unremarkable this year. I’d actually like to see a little bit more of rookie Dekoda Watson. At 6’2, 240 he’s a good size and he brings 4.4 speed to the table. He’s also a bit more of a vocal leader, or at least he was in college. He’s young, he can be brought along slowly but I think his combination of size and speed could at the very least provide the Bucs with a good pass rushing option off the edge when they want to bring the blitz.

Final Thoughts

I don’t dislike any of the Bucs linebackers, I think in particular circumstances all three of them could have very good years. But on this Bucs team with this personnel, I don’t think any of them are exceptional. Ruud isn’t a problem, but I do think MLB may be a need for the Buccaneers after the season. And the facts remain the same, the Bucs are 30th in the NFL against the run and they can’t rush the passer. That falls on the shoulders of the front seven and this linebacking corps isn’t exactly pulling their weight either.

Grade: D+

As the line improves this unit will too, but behind a bad line things aren’t going to be easy.