Buccaneers have pieces needed to go from worst to first in secondary

Monday August 12th, 2013

Dashon Goldson left the 49ers to sign a five-year, $41.25 million deal with the Buccaneers.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI

TAMPA -- History says it was those memorable 1979 Bucs of John McKay and Lee Roy Selmon vintage that started the whole "worst to first'' craze in the NFL, stunning the league with a 10-6 record and the NFC Central Division title that season after winning a mere seven games in the expansion franchise's first three slapstick seasons of existence.

But 34 years later, the 2013 edition of the Bucs have both the potential and intention to author a worst-to-first turnaround of a different sort, at one particularly high-profile segment of the roster. No team in the NFL underwent a more dramatic makeover at any position this offseason than Tampa Bay did in the secondary, after finishing dead last in the league in pass defense last year, giving up an average of 297 yards per game. That was the second most in NFL history, just shy of Green Bay's 299.8 low-water mark in 2011, and led to the Bucs throwing some serious resources at the problem.

First came the headline acquisition of 49ers free-agent safety Dashon Goldson, a physical and rangy two-time Pro Bowl selection, who received a five-year deal worth $41.25 million. Then the Bucs made the NFL's boldest deal of the offseason by consummating the long-anticipated Darrelle Revis trade with the Jets, shipping their first-round pick to New York for the game's best cornerback, even while he was in the throes of rehabilitation from major knee surgery. Lastly, the Bucs drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round, their highest remaining pick, and bade farewell to 16-year team mainstay Ronde Barber, a three-time All-Pro cornerback and future Hall of Fame talent who retired in early May.

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Throw in the Bucs releasing troubled cornerback Eric Wright (after first trying to trade him to San Francisco) and losing cornerback E.J. Biggers via free agency to Washington, and a Tampa Bay secondary that last season surrendered 30 touchdown passes, and a ghastly 69 completions of at least 20 yards, has been erased and almost completely redrawn. The secondary's remodeling actually started with the November trade of cornerback Aqib Talib to New England, and included the mutual parting of ways with defensive backs coach Ron Cooper, who left for the University of South Florida (ex-Saints, Jaguars assistant Tony Oden replaced Cooper).

Can a team's greatest weakness be turned into its greatest strength in the course of one offseason? Well, that's the plan in Tampa Bay. Now we get to see if it has any shot of coming to fruition.

"We're not going to be last again, I know that much,'' said Revis, who remains confident that he'll return to the field in time for Tampa Bay's Week 1 trip to the Jets, his old team. "Last season they were last in pass defense here, and the organization wanted to address that in a big way. Bringing in me and Goldson, and drafting Johnthan [Banks], it's awesome. We're going to be fine. We're going to compete.''

The Bucs' secondary did far too little of that in 2012, especially within an NFC South that features glamor receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White in Atlanta, Steve Smith in Carolina and Marques Colston in New Orleans, in addition to play-making tight ends Tony Gonzalez (Falcons), Jimmy Graham (Saints) and Greg Olsen (Panthers). Tampa Bay was burned for 305 passing yards per game and a completion percentage of 68.2 in its six division games last year, with opposing quarterbacks Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees compiling a gaudy 104.8 passer rating against the Bucs, with 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Tampa Bay actually led the NFL in rush defense last season, giving up just 82.5 yards per game on the ground. But opponents knew the path of least resistance against the Bucs was via the air, and Tampa Bay's 24.6 points allowed per game ranked a lowly 23rd overall. Thus the overhaul in the back of the Bucs' defense.

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"I'm a firm believer that you can make a drastic turnaround, just talking from experience,'' Goldson said after a recent Bucs training camp practice. "I played in San Fran for six years, and we weren't the greatest secondary for a while there. But we got that turned around. It boils down to what you want to be known for.

"With Revis still out, we're not all there yet as a unit, so realistically it'll take a little time. But it still could be this year. It doesn't have to be next year. It's going to come. And once we get it and click, we could be really dangerous for a lot of teams. They [the Bucs' front office] did a good job of making that position a priority and now it's on us to go out here and put it together and get it done.''

The key to the success of the Bucs' refurbished secondary is obviously getting Revis back and playing his typical shutdown corner. No man is an island, but Tampa Bay will ask Revis to play on one, assigning him to the opposing No. 1 receiver while it rolls coverage to the other side of the field. That luxury of an approach worked wonderfully for the Jets, but Revis went down with a torn ACL in Week 3 last season, and who knows if he'll return to lock-down form at age 28, coming off the first serious injury of his seven-year NFL career. Then again, it's entirely possible that Revis at 95 percent is better than 99 percent of the cornerbacks in the NFL.

Bucs second-year head coach Greg Schiano is being cautious with his recovering star -- on Monday Revis returned to work in a live team drill for the first time in training camp -- but playing it safe won't be the call in the regular season. Tampa Bay won't use many Cover 2 sets with Revis on the field. His presence, Schiano believes, will allow the Bucs to play aggressively in coverage, and frequently walk either Goldson or second-year safety Mark Barron (the team's first-round pick in 2012) into the box to help on run defense.

"That's what he [Schiano] wants to do,'' Revis said. "Now we can get a little more aggressive, and we've got guys who can cover. If I can shut down the top receiver, then it should help [defensive tackle] Gerald [McCoy] and our pass rush buy time to get to the quarterback. That's the intent. All I've got to do is my job on this team, covering the best guy on the team we're playing that day.''

In other words, when the Bucs sent the No. 13 pick in this year's draft to the Jets and signed Revis to a six-year, $96 million contract extension, they did so firmly believing they were buying the same player who dominated in New York.

"You don't go out and get Revis to play over the top with him [in Cover 2],'' Goldson said. "You let him do what he does. Whenever he comes back, he's going to have to be Darrelle Revis for us.''

Revis has experienced no setbacks in his knee rehabilitation, he said, with swelling in the knee after workouts being almost non-existent. Schiano said if all continues to go well, he could envision Revis getting a small dose of action in the preseason, which would most likely occur in the traditional Week 3 "dress rehearsal'' game at Miami.

"I know he wants to do things right now and we're holding him back from certain things,'' Schiano said last week. "We're protecting him from himself almost. But the step by step process has been good and I think we're right on schedule for him to be ready and effective in the Jets game.''

Revis exudes confidence that when he takes the field for his homecoming game at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in Week 1, he'll do it without a physical drop-off of any kind due to his 2012 knee injury.

"I'll be fine and I'll be there,'' he said quietly. "I'm not going to step on the field until I'm 100 percent. That's the coaches' goal and that's our goal going forward. So when you see me step out on the field, I'm ready to go play.''

With Revis working on a side field for much of camp, Goldson has made an early impression on Schiano and his coaching staff in terms of defensive leadership and helping mentor the team's young defensive backs like Barron and Banks. Barron showed flashes of playmaking last season, but Tampa Bay needs him to become a steadier and more consistent performer, which should help cut down on the whopping 11 pass plays of 50 yards or more given up by the Bucs last season.

Banks, the Jim Thorpe Award winner last year as college football's best defensive back, has looked in camp like a good bet to start opposite Revis, running ahead of veteran cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Danny Gorrer. Banks is a long and lean 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, with an impressive wingspan and the ability to close on the ball. With Goldson at 6-2, 200, Barron at 6-2, 213, and Revis checking in at 5-11, 198, the Bucs should match up well with the league's bevy of big receivers.

"We've really changed the size and look of our secondary with Revis, Banks and Goldson,'' Bucs fifth-year general manager Mark Dominik said. "It's a nice 1-2 combination back there with those two big safeties. We wanted some size in our secondary.''

Bigger players, and bigger names, who arrived via some of the biggest moves in the NFL this year. No unit has changed quite as much as the Bucs' secondary. In ways even Dominik could not have predicted.

"It took a lot of different pieces that you couldn't have foreseen,'' he said. "Like the certainty that the Jets would actually trade [Revis], Goldson making it to free agency, and then us trading the one [first-round pick] to the Jets and still hoping Banks would be there in the second round.

"But we were happy to do it. Those guys don't come available often. They just don't.''

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