When Sean Murphy-Bunting dislocated his elbow against the Cowboys, the Buccaneers not only lost their No. 2 corner, but they also lost their No. 1 slot defender.
Offenses have redefined the slot position over the years to the point where it is one of the more impactful positions in the game. It takes a lot to be a good slot defender. Not only do you have to defend against some of the game's best receivers, but you also have to be competent in run defense and physical enough to blitz when needed.
In other words: it's an important job. And it's not easy.
So you can see why it's integral that the Buccaneers find a way to replace SMB. Ross Cockrell is next in line and he's a solid option, but like all players, he has weaknesses. Cockrell lacks top-end speed and shiftiness and he doesn't have the size to get down and dirty with let's say, a Kyle Pitts, if Pitts were to line up across from him.
But the good news is the Bucs have other guys who can step up when needed. And the best part is they are quite aware of who can do the job. This versatility and flexibility will go a long way in overcoming the loss of Murphy-Bunting.
"We’ve been in positions like this before," Jordan Whitehead told reporters on Friday. "The next guy steps up. We’ve got a lot of versatile players and a lot of players who can do a lot of things and that we know are going to make plays. We are definitely going to miss Sean out there. There is only one Sean, but it’s the NFL. You’ve got to come in and you can’t miss a beat.
"I really think anybody from Antoine [Winfield Jr.], Mike [Edwards], [to] Ross [Cockrell] could play nickel. Antoine was there a little bit last year, then Mike goes to safety and a lot of different things. We’ll be ready."
Whitehead isn't exaggerating when he says the Bucs "have a lot of guys" who can play nickel or line up in the slot. Per Sports Info Solutions, Tampa Bay's defense lined up with five defensive backs on the field at a 69% rate in 2020 and 11 players ranging from Jason Pierre-Paul to Antoine Winfield Jr. to even Kevin Minter Jr. defended the slot at various times, per Pro Football Focus. Quarterbacks averaged an 80.9 rating when throwing against the Bucs' other slot defenders.
It's bled over into 2021 through one week, as well. Per SIS, the Bucs had seven players line up in the slot -including rookie OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka- which tied for the third-highest amount and is two players greater than the current league average of five.
It also helps to have a player like Carlton Davis III, who can shadow receivers and play both inside and out.
"Carlton is, I think, one of the top corners in the league and he does give you a lot of flexibility defensively as far as following a guy from inside to outside and both sides," Bruce Arians explained. "Some guys only do it from one side or on the outside – he will follow his guy around [and] he gives Todd [Bowles] a tremendous amount of flexibility."
"You put him against the best receiver – that’s what he wants to do," said Whitehead. "I know that he’s going to lock them down. He just makes the rest of us be able to just do our jobs. He handles one side, and you know it’s going to be locked down. It helps everybody else out.”
The loss of Murphy-Bunting is a big deal, but the Buccaneers are fortunate enough to where they have plenty of options to help them navigate the next few weeks, months, or whatever the timeline is for SMB's return. And it's not like he's completely absent, either. The third-year corner is still doing whatever he can to help his teammates in terms of preparing for the game and understanding the next opponent.
"Sean is still out there," said Whitehead. "He’s still talking to us and getting us ready for practice and everything. He’s still in the meeting room, so Sean’s presence is there. That’s the good thing from Sean – he’s going to be around. He always has the same personality and brings that energy to us...Everybody knows, like I said before, there is only one Sean, but we’ve got a lot of great players on this team and they will do anything they’re asked to do.”
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