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The Buccaneers’ Young Secondary Could Be the Key to Super Bowl LV

Tampa Bay’s defensive backs will have their hands full with Patrick Mahomes and Co. on Sunday. But they may be up to the task.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Before the season started, Kevin Ross uncapped a marker and began jotting names on a whiteboard. The Buccaneers cornerbacks coach addressed his youthful position group, reminding them of the top-tier quarterbacks they were scheduled to face during the regular season: Matt Ryan and Drew Brees (twice). Aaron Rodgers. Patrick Mahomes. A collection of Pro Bowlers, All-Pros, and Super Bowl champions. Tampa Bay’s most prominently featured cornerbacks—Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Jamel Dean—along with the safeties starting behind them—rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. and third-year pro Jordan Whitehead—are each 24 years old or younger. None had experienced a winning NFL season prior to now. So it helped that, this season, Tampa Bay’s defensive backs would face someone of Hall of Fame caliber at practice on a regular basis.

Tom Brady’s arrival has meant plenty for the Bucs franchise. Ross is specifically appreciative for what it has meant for the development of his cornerbacks. “When you’re playing against a quarterback like that every day,” Ross said Tuesday, “your game has to raise, your mental has to raise, everything about you has to raise. You have to coach this thing totally different. They’ve done that. They’ve prepared for that and they’re ready for the next test.”

Sunday’s exam is more of a retake, but the stakes are astronomically higher. Tampa Bay’s defensive backs already faced Mahomes and the Chiefs back in Week 12 and, by their own admission, failed that test. In the first quarter alone, Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill compiled 203 receiving yards and two scores as the Chiefs sprinted out to a 17-0 lead. The Bucs settled down in the second half, though, helping force stops that allowed their offense to claw back into what ended as a 27-24 loss. On Tuesday, Murphy-Bunting said that the adjustments made in that defeat inspired Tampa Bay’s secondary throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs. Now, the Bucs secondary will play a crucial role in whether they finish the season as champions, getting a second go at the NFL’s most impressive offensive unit.

“It was really no surprise of us getting here,” Murphy-Bunting said. “It was more so sticking to the script and doing everything the right way to put yourself in better position once you get here.”

Murphy-Bunting is perhaps Tampa Bay’s best example of being in the right position at the right time, at least this postseason. When Murphy-Bunting picked off Rodgers in the NFC championship game, the second-year defender became the first player since Lardarius Webb in 2011 to notch three interceptions in a single postseason. Since 2000, only 11 players have accomplished this feat, and two of them—Ty Law (three, 2003) and Rodney Harrison (four, 2004)—were also on teams quarterbacked by Brady. Those teams won back-to-back championships.

Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, is plenty familiar with the importance of defense. Almost every magical championship run he’s been on involves one genius or clutch defensive play. It was Law’s blanket coverage of Isaac Bruce and his 47-yard pick-six against Kurt Warner’s Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI that gifted the Patriots an early lead during Brady’s improbable first title run. Law’s three picks in the 2003 playoffs helped Brady capture his second. Harrison’s pair of interceptions against Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX sealed Brady’s third. In Super Bowl XLIX, cornerback Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception off Seattle’s Russell Wilson secured Brady’s fourth championship. And cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s red-zone pick of former Ram Jared Goff in Super Bowl LIII delivered Brady’s sixth ring.

“There have been great plays by defensive backs in those Super Bowls that kind of helped get the W,” Davis said Tuesday, reflecting on those instances. “We’re going to have to do that this Sunday. I’m fully confident that we’re capable of making those plays.”

There’s good reason for Davis’s confidence in the Bucs defense’s ability to generate those plays. Tampa Bay finished the season fifth in takeaways (25) and tied for fourth in turnover percentage (14.0), and has forced at least one turnover in 17 of the 19 games it has played this year. That includes its current five-game streak with a takeaway, highlighted by a four-turnover effort against the Saints in the divisional round that keyed the Bucs’ victory. They managed to force and recover a fumble against Kansas City back in Week 12, but Mahomes and Co. are typically one of the NFL’s best at maintaining possession. This season, the Chiefs offense ranked eighth in turnover percentage (9.2) and was tied for fourth in total turnovers (16). Kansas City’s only offensive turnover this postseason entering Sunday was backup quarterback Chad Henne’s errant interception against the Browns in the divisional round. Mahomes has thrown just two interceptions in the postseason in his career (both in last year’s Super Bowl), and he is completing 73.5 percent of his passes this postseason for an average of 290 yards per game with four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and just one sack taken.

“We’ve gotta be ballhawks, create turnovers any way possible, whether it’s an interception, forced fumble, fumble recovery,” Murphy-Bunting said. “Take the ball away from Mahomes, put it in his hands less, give it to Tom, and hope our offense is gonna put points on the board for us. It would be great if we could get points on the board ourselves, though.”

If any Bucs defensive back is looking to improve his performance against the Chiefs, it’s Davis. In Week 12, he was frequently tasked with covering Hill and was on the wrong end of several big plays, including the speedy wideout’s first-quarter backflip into the end zone. Davis, who finished among the league leaders in pass deflections this season, said that the performance helped him grow. “There’s going to be ups and downs. It’s like a roller coaster,” he said, later adding that the performance “affected me, but it was a good way for me to bounce back and just stay even keel. It happened and you move on, and you continue to grow and you continue to try to get better.”

Ross said that the first meeting was useful for all of his players. Hill’s speed is impossible to simulate in practice, so it’s not a bad thing that the Bucs’ secondary already has some experience with him. Murphy-Bunting spoke highly of Hill’s talent, too.

“For anybody on the outside looking in, that dude’s fast,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He has some serious speed. And I feel like for a lot of people, you won’t really know how to play that type of guy until you’ve seen it in person or seen it go against you. Just seeing that in person, the dude is fast. Going in person, I see why the dude’s nickname is ‘the Cheetah.’ He’s fast.”

A smirk flashed across Ross’s face when he was asked about what adjustments the Bucs could make to slow down Hill, pointing out that it’s not only the receiver that they have to be wary of, but also All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, the third member of the Chiefs’ unsolvable trio who sliced Tampa Bay’s defense for eight catches for 82 yards in November. But having faced Kansas City’s offense before—and even enjoying some success against it at some point—is enough to give the veteran position coach confidence in his group and in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s game plan.

No one was willing to reveal what the strategy for slowing down Kansas City’s offense would be—Ross simply joked that the plan is to “basically play better than we did last time.” Perhaps the Bucs’ sharp increase in deploying two-man coverage (defensive formations with man coverage underneath with two safeties playing deep) and aggressiveness in pressing opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage provides a peek into what’s to come. ESPN’s Jenna Laine noted earlier this week that since facing the Chiefs in Week 12, Tampa Bay has played two-man coverage on 18.1 percent of snaps—up from 4.8 percent in its 12 games prior. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes completed 53.6 percent of his passes against such defensive looks this season, his lowest against any coverage.

“It’s a couple ways you can play football,” Ross said. “You can play football laid back and let the receivers go where they want to go, or you can put your hands on them and try to take the time away from some routes. We choose the latter for the most part, and we go from there. The Kansas City Chiefs are just really too good—you have to mix and match things. They figure out things very fast. They have great players in every position. It’ll be a nice little chess match going on on Sunday between the players and the coaches.”

The Bucs are also getting some reinforcements. In addition to having starting nose tackle Vita Vea back for Sunday’s rematch, Tampa Bay will also have Dean, its fastest cornerback, available after he missed the first contest. Dean, who’s registered seven starts this season, boasts 4.3 speed that could perhaps give Kansas City a faster option in covering Hill. Star linebacker Devin White hyped up Dean’s presence while speaking with media on Wednesday.

“He’s been a guy that’s made a lot of plays and held a lot of fast guys for us,” White said. “Jamel Dean is a 4.3 guy that’s long and rangy, and he’s been a tremendous help to this team as well. He’s a guy that’s not getting a lot of hype, has a lot of hype behind him. But without him, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

But Dean deflected any praise when asked whether or not he could be an X factor in Sunday’s game. “Whatever Coach Bowles calls, I’m just gonna play the call and whatever technique the call has me doing,” he said. “I have to do it to the best of my abilities.” The response epitomizes the type of mature identity that this Bucs secondary unit, despite its youth, has taken on this season. Tampa Bay’s defense had high standards to live up to, not only because of Brady’s arrival, but because of the precedent it set last season when it finished sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. The group finished fifth this season and improved in pass DVOA, rising from 13th last season to fifth in the category this year. Pro Football Focus graded the Bucs as its eighth-best defense in coverage during the 2020 regular season, up from 19th last year.

White praised his defensive back teammates for playing at such a high level despite not having a star veteran to lean on in the starting unit, like he has in linebacker Lavonte David. “I give a lot of credit to those guys, man,” White said. “That’s kind of hard, especially playing the NFL, and not having a vet to lean on. But man, those guys are getting to get it done. Every time they’re asked to, they step up to the challenge and they get it done. They’ve been criticized so much, but they always come to work.”

“Every time we’re out there, practicing or in the game,” Winfield added, “I feel like all of that experience has made us better, just being able to feed off one another and feel how each other play.”

The development of Tampa Bay’s defensive backs—none of whom were first-round NFL draft picks—is already impressive, though they’re among the first to acknowledge that the unit is not a finished product. Regardless, their play on Sunday will be integral if the Bucs are going to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Murphy-Bunting expressed gratitude for Tampa Bay’s front office and coaching staff for trusting them.

“We’ve had our rough patches here and there,” Murphy-Bunting said, “but that’s gonna happen when you have a bunch of younger guys still trying to learn the game and still trying to develop as players in a league like this, in a fast league. We’ve obviously played some talented teams and we’ve played against some really talented quarterbacks and for us—from the beginning of the season until now—it’s only gotten better, and it’s only going to continue to grow the more we rely on each other, we trust each other, and play for one another.”