The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie defensive backs put on a show in the preseason. The regular season has brought new challenges, and the group is struggling.
During the preseason, the trio of defensive backs Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht selected in the 2018 NFL Draft looked fantastic.
Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead all made impact plays in August, each moving up the depth chart with the regular season looming. For the first time in a long time, the future appeared bright for the Tampa Bay secondary.
The sky-high expectations for Carlton Davis and company have been brought back down to Earth. Through five weeks, teams gashed the defensive backfield. The Bucs allowed a league-worst 355.8 yards per game.
The issues facing the back end of the Bucs defense led to the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday.
Injuries have been a critical component of the struggles in the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves‘ season came to an abrupt end after a shoulder injury in the season opener, and Chris Conte landed on the injured reserve with a knee injury.
Before the season could get rolling, the Buccaneers were already down a pair of starters. The injuries forced both Stewart and Whitehead into the starting lineup before they could prepare for the role.
Stewart, in particular, looks overmatched.
According to Pro Football Focus, Stewart has allowed the third most receptions and third most receiving yards in slot coverage in the entire NFL. Throughout the season, offenses have targeted him frequently on third down and in crucial situations.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It isn’t time to panic about Stewart, but to play as poorly as he has through five games could hurt his confidence. Unfortunately, there are no other options. Stewart will have to take his bumps and bruises this season.
For Whitehead, the struggles haven’t been as visible. The athletic safety hasn’t been targeted often in coverage, but he hasn’t made any spectacular plays either. Maybe it’s a good thing that Whitehead sat in the background all these weeks.
For Carlton Davis, talented NFL wideouts have given him fits. After winning the starting outside cornerback job, Davis has been on the field as much as any defensive back.
Fortunately for Davis, Brent Grimes and Ryan Smith have been terrible to start the season. Grimes’ injury put him well behind the eight ball to open the season, but he hasn’t looked much better weeks later.
It wouldn’t be crazy to say that Davis has been the best cornerback so far this season, the problem is, even he hasn’t been that good. On the season he only has one pass defense and a handful of missed tackles.
The issues the rookies have faced isn’t entirely their fault. The poor defensive scheme put them in an impossible position. When Davis is asked to play soft coverage and quarterbacks beat him on short passes, it’s hard to knock him.
Lackluster play from veterans teammates also makes it hard for the rookies to develop. When the entire unit is on pace to allow the most passing yards in NFL history, it’s hard to say that anyone in the secondary performed well.
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