Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Long Road Ahead for the Defense

Jason KannoContributor IIIMarch 6, 2012

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Long Road Ahead for the Defense

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    A few weeks ago, we diagnosed the Buccaneers' offense, which suffered from severe anemia in 2011.

    Now, we try to treat the Bucs' defense, which is basically on its deathbed. Former head coach Raheem Morris' defense set a new record of awfulness in 2011, acting as little more than a sieve against opposing offenses.

    There are lot of contributing factors to the amateurish play of the Bucs' defense—the utter lack of discipline instilled by Morris, the lack of veteran leadership, the overabundance of youth, Gerald McCoy's biceps and Quincy Black's field awareness.

    One of the problems, the biggest in fact, was resolved when Raheem Morris was replaced by Greg Schiano.

    Now, Schiano, along with his staff and general manager Mark Dominik, must continue to treat what ails the Buccaneers' defense.

    First, they must determine which parts have futures in Tampa and which are best donated to free agency. Then, the Bucs need to use free agency or the draft to make their team whole again.

    Let the operation begin...

Defensive Ends

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    Despite notching a league-low 23 team sacks in 2011, the Bucs have reason to believe they have found the future at the defensive end position, partly because half of Tampa’s sacks came from starting ends Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett.

    Clayborn laid to rest any concerns about his play due to Erb’s palsy. The former Hawkeye lived up to his draft status, displaying a relentless motor and a bull rush that overpowered a number of offensive tackles in 2011.

    The only thing he lacks is a unique sack celebration.

    Bennett was not quite as spectacular as Clayborn, but he was solid nonetheless. His speed was underestimated by his opponents, and he was one of few Buccaneers who played well in run support.

    The former Longhorn is a free agent in 2012, but expect general manager Mark Dominik to re-sign this important piece of the defense.

    Da’Quan Bowers was considered a steal when he was drafted in the second round of the 2011 Draft. Questions remain about the long-term health of his surgically reconstructed knee, and the Buccaneers were careful with his snaps during the season.

    Bowers will likely remain a rotational player, but he still has considerable upside and may still become a pass-rush force in the near future.

    Depth behind Clayborn, Bennett and Bowers should be good enough that the Buccaneers will not look to add many pieces in free agency. Tim Crowder’s pass-rush is nothing special, but he can play the run as well as every other defensive end on the roster.

    Don’t count out perennial preseason hero George Johnson. If he has yet another solid preseason, it will be difficult for his old Rutgers coach Greg Schiano to deny Johnson a spot in the rotation.

    The biggest concern for this unit is whether they will take that collective step forward or, like the would-be breakout wide receivers in 2010, regress much to the detriment of the rest of the defense.

    Every defensive end on the roster is under 27, which provokes both optimism and fear, as the players have not yet fully matured, which will occasionally manifest itself on the field.

    It is vital for Schiano and his staff to focus on getting this group to take the next step.

    Diagnosis: Continue treatment for youth and inexperience but transplants not yet necessary.

Defensive Tackles

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    The Buccaneers must have considered renaming this position “musical chairs” in 2011. After Gerald McCoy was lost to yet another bicep injury, the defensive tackle position fell to pieces.

    Brian Price and his Home Depot hamstrings anchored a unit that got railroaded in the last 10 games of the season. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe this unit did not play to its potential last year.

    Gerald McCoy better be careful; he stands on the cusp of the dreaded “B” word, which haunts countless first-round picks. Fair or not, ending consecutive seasons on IR threatens to place the bust label on 2010’s third overall pick.

    2012 will determine whether or not McCoy can survive in the NFL.

    Poor Brian Price. After recovering from extremely rare hip surgery and reconstituting his football conditioning, he was left in the cold without McCoy.

    Despite the misfortune that had befallen Price, he still put together a nice season, notching 24 tackles and 3 sacks. Coming into the 2012 season, without having to get back into football shape, Price is starting on a much better foot than last season.

    Look for the depth behind Price and McCoy to rebound this year. Roy Miller has never been much of a pass-rusher, but until last year, he was reliable against the run.

    Frank Okam is a mountain of a man who broke down as the season wore, partly due to increased snaps. Miller and Okam are likely to improve their game under Greg Schiano’s increased emphasis on fundamentals and discipline.

    There are calls to draft another defensive tackle with a high pick or take one in free agency.

    However, it is too early to call it a day on McCoy and Price, especially not after only two seasons. The defensive line in general will greatly benefit from a full, healthy offseason together under a discipline-minded coach.

    Diagnosis: Wrap up the biceps and hamstrings, and call back in one year.

Linebackers

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    Once upon a time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had linebackers envied by teams around the league, but that ended when they unceremoniously let go of future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.

    Linebacker play for the past several years has been woeful, marked by poor instincts and an inability to tackle. As the position most devoid of consistency and discipline, the Buccaneers need to shake up the linebacker corps, stat.

    Line item one? Go after this year’s top free-agent linebacker, Stephen Tulloch. This one is easy. He’s going to command a lot of money, especially given the deal D’Qwell Jackson received from the Browns, and the Bucs have a lot of money to spend.

    Tampa also needs a veteran leader, and Tulloch’s play and experience make him not only an ideal acquisition but a necessary one.

    Mason Foster displayed promise in his rookie season. He plays physical, hard-nosed football, and for the first half of the season, he made a fair share of splash plays.

    Unfortunately, Foster did not excel in his role as defensive play-caller—unfair as it may be to judge a rookie on running a defense. If the rumors of moving Foster to the outside are true, Foster should impress in 2012.

    General manager Mark Dominik made a huge mistake giving LB Quincy Black a five-year, $29 million contract last year. Nothing Black did prior to signing warranted such a big contract, and his play in 2011 proved Dominik’s folly.

    Black is a physical freak, but he lacks instincts.

    Given the amount of money coming Black’s way, the Bucs cannot simply cut Black in 2012. The entire defense was awful in 2011, and while Black may be overpaid, he is not entirely a lost cause.

    Mark Dominick needs bring in another linebacker to push Black for the starting Sam linebacker position. To find that linebacker, the Bucs must first address what they have on the roster to see if they already have a starter.

    LB Geno Hayes should be gone. He should not be a Buccaneer in 2012, having spent his last ounce of goodwill with the organization. He has lacked consistency and displayed a penchant for disappearing during games.

    In fact, his inevitable departure means the Bucs have to find two potential starting linebackers during the offseason.

    Special teams leader Adam Hayward is the next linebacker on the depth chart but has proven that he cannot be relied upon as a starter.

    Pass-rush specialist Dekoda Watson is cut from the same cloth as Quincy Black—musclebound, fast and utterly devoid of instincts.

    Clearly, the Buccaneers will need to look to the draft and free agency for starting options.

    One viable option is Rocky McIntosh. The soon-to-be former linebacker for the Redskins struggled in the 3-4 but was solid in the 4-3. Considering his poor performance in 2011, he might come as a steal.

    Obviously, the draft holds a number of options for the Bucs, but a lot has to happen between now and then.

    Taking a veteran linebacker like Tulloch or McIntosh will affect where the Bucs will draft a linebacker. Look for the Bucs to scope out Nebraska’s Lavonte Davis, TCU’s Tank Carder and Texas’ Emmanuel Acho.

    Diagnosis: A Tulloch transplant and infuse Foster to the weak side.

Cornerbacks

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    This position was a total disaster in 2011 and could be even worse in 2012. Mark Dominik gave Raheem Morris far too much leeway with his pet position.

    While Ronde Barber was amazingly still solid, Aqib Talib’s off-field issues were compounded by lackluster play on the field, and pretty much everyone behind them proved they would not be able to cut it as a starter in the NFL.

    Ronde is the last remnant of the Tony Dungy era in the Bucs organization, but that should not suggest that Barber is a relic. Barber is still the most consistent defender on the roster, as sad as that is. It will be the reigning NFL Iron Man’s choice whether or not he wants to return for another year.

    One way or another, Talib will miss games in 2012. He might be sitting at home courtesy of a Roger Goodell suspension, or he might be sitting in prison.

    Greg Schiano might give Aqib one more chance if he beats his case. Talib, for all his talent, is maddeningly inconsistent and undisciplined. 2012 is definitely his last chance to prove himself to the Buccaneers.

    Poor EJ Biggers. He was picked on incessantly in 2011, and opposing teams definitely benefited. Biggers is simply not big or fast enough to play the outside, but his instincts are underrated. He can still contribute as the nickel corner.

    Do not be surprised to see Elbert Mack play for the Redskins this year. The secondary loves Raheem and would follow him anywhere; plus, Mack was brought in by former GM Bruce Allen, so Mack’s connections in Washington are pretty strong.

    As for the rest, Myron Lewis is a bust. He is as good as cut in my eyes.

    I think Anthony Gaitor will be given another year to prove himself, given his status as a Dominik draftee.

    Clearly, the Bucs need a talent infusion at cornerback, and the most obvious place to start is with the fifth pick of the draft and Morris Claiborne.

    Odds are good that Claiborne will be available at the fifth pick, and Claiborne’s talent and Tampa’s need for another corner make this a match made in heaven. Claiborne is similar to former teammate Patrick Peterson—fast and athletic.

    Mark Dominik has a penchant for doubling down on drafting by position, so expect him to stock up on corners early this year. The Bucs are poorly hiding their admiration for Nebraska’s Alfonso Dennard, whose stock has dropped since his poor outings at the Capital One Bowl and the Senior Bowl. He could be available for Tampa in the second round.

    So far as free agents are concerned, Brandon Carr is still the best option available, though the Bucs are unlikely to land him.

    One player who could likely be available is Tracy Porter. With Drew Brees getting the franchise tag, the Saints will be cap-strapped, and Porter may end up as a roster casualty.

    While Porter is overrated and in danger of being overpaid, he makes the most of his opportunities in blitz-heavy defenses, which Greg Schiano is known for.

    Diagnosis: Schedule a Claiborne transplant for April 26 and a free agency consult.

Safeties

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    The biggest problem with the safeties is about to be someone else’s problem.

    Sean Jones was brought in two years ago without much fanfare but with some expectation that he would bring solid play. He pretty much blew that with utterly bland play and surprising laziness, best demonstrated last year against Houston. Needless to say, if he doesn't return, he will not be missed.

    Fortunately, the Bucs will finally have free safety Tanard Jackson available for offseason activities. Battling his issues with drugs have cost Jackson nearly two seasons of his career, and he is on his last chance, as he would likely be kicked out of the league with another drug policy violation.

    Jackson is probably the best safety in the NFC South, but that statement is only true if he is not just joining the team halfway through the season. His play last year was marred by poor conditioning, as Jackson had essentially come off the couch after a year. Look for him to rebound in 2012, provided he passes on the puff-puff-pass.

    Behind Jackson lies a much less certain situation. Cody Grimm once again finished the season on IR with a leg injury. While his injuries have been the results of freak (and horrific) accidents, there is mounting concern over Grimm’s durability and ability to rebound from injury. Before breaking his leg in 2010, Grimm was one of the Bucs’ best tacklers.

    Ahmad Black spent half of 2011 on the practice squad due to a training camp injury. He joined a team in utter disarray. We still do not know what the Bucs have in Black, but he is likely to make the roster and compete for time in the rotation.

    Corey Lynch made the team based on his special teams prowess, but he lacks the athletic ability to stay on the field as a safety for anything but a handful of snaps per game. As an unrestricted free agent, he might not be back with the Bucs, but he would not be a huge loss.

    This group is not the most impressive unit by any means. However, the Bucs simply have too many other needs to spend a high draft pick on a safety, and none of the free-agent safeties would be significant upgrades. Of all the defensive units, the safeties are the biggest mystery, which affords the Bucs some time and leeway in tapping the potential of Grimm, Black and company.

    Diagnosis: Avoid overtreatment and rehab T-Jax' game.