The Real Difference Maker In Tampa’s Secondary
By Corbin Smith
When diagnosing Tampa Bay's defensive problems from a year ago, the team appeared to battle bipolar disorder throughout the season. The Buccaneers boasted the league’s top run defense, giving up just 82.5 rushing yards per game and also holding opponents to a league-low 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Led by tackle machines Lavonte David and Mason Foster at the linebacker spots and employing an underappreciated defensive front, teams struggled to run the football with any success against Tampa Bay. However, Tampa’s pass defense proved to be 180 degrees different as the team ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards against and gave up nearly 5,000 yards passing total in 2012.
Management entered the offseason hoping to shore up a secondary that had more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, but the team had to decide how it wanted to approach this daunting task. The free agent market this spring lacked big-name appeal, especially on defense, which left the Buccaneers in a tough spot. The team did not find any suitable upgrades at corner on the market, but they did sign former 49ers FS Dashon Goldson, who should provide the Bucs with a nice one-two punch alongside Mark Barron at the safety spots. Goldson’s veteran presence and tackling ability will be valuable assets to the defense, but he is not celebrated for his coverage skills. The team knew it still needed a major overhaul at the corner positions, and once it became apparent that Darrelle Revis could be had at the right price, the team made a bold decision and decided to trade its first round pick to the New York Jets for the former All-Pro talent.
If Revis comes back fully healthy and returns to his pre-injury form then the Buccaneers will finally have a shutdown corner to complement a strong run defense. But will his presence alone be enough to transform the league’s worst pass defense into a good one? While landing “Revis Island” will certainly help, this team will need to have another corner emerge for the defense to make significant improvements against the pass. Entering camp, Tampa Bay had second-year CB Leonard Johnson penciled in to play across from Revis with the starters, but second round selection Johnthan Banks has quickly made up ground with impressive play at practice and a strong debut against the Ravens. If he continues to play well during the remainder of the preseason, there is a good chance Banks will unseat Johnson as the team’s second corner.
As the NFL continues to become more pass-oriented, teams must place greater emphasis on developing talented corners and safeties who can defend both the pass and the run effectively. Players like Revis remain a hot commodity, but only so many of these talents exist in the league and that caliber of player rarely becomes available, so strong scouting efforts and player development remain crucial in creating a strong secondary. The Seattle Seahawks have excelled in both scouting and developing in the secondary as the franchise has invested draft choices in players like FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor, and CB Richard Sherman and continues to reap the benefits as these young talents keep progressing. Bringing Revis on board will be a great start for Tampa Bay, but the coaching staff will need to show it can develop its own players for the defense to reach the next level.
Enter in Banks, the former Mississippi State star who put together a strong college career that reached its pinnacle when he won the Jim Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back in 2012. He also earned first-team All American Honors and was named a first-team All-SEC performer during his senior year, but a disappointing showing at the NFL Combine in March dropped his draft stock. Once considered an early first round lock, the former Bulldog ended up being the sixth corner chosen in the draft and fell to the Buccaneers with the 43rd selection. While the drop may have disappointed Banks, he came to camp ready to prove himself and has pleased the coaching staff with his effort and skill set thus far.
In his after-game press conference following a 44-16 loss to the Ravens in the team's first contest of the preseason, Schiano complimented the rookie corner for being prepared for the challenges presented to NFL players.
“You can see guys who are a little bit tentative out there at the corner," Schiano told reporters attending the press conference. "They’re gonna give a little extra cushion, they’re gonna play with their eyes. The one thing that Johnthan keeps getting better at is he’s disciplining his eyes, and that’s the hardest thing to do as a defensive back.”
Schiano also believes Banks will develop into a strong tackling corner, and he already saw some positives from him against Baltimore in this department.
“He threw his body in there, which I had seen on his Arizona tape, and I’m glad to see he continued to do that,” Schiano said of Banks' tackling.
Having a corner who can cover receivers remains the biggest priority, but tackling from the secondary continues to become more important as the game transitions and Banks has the ability to excel in both areas. Schiano will not simply hand him a starting spot, but he has shown so far that he is willing to put the work in at practice and he makes adjustments quickly. Even in his opening game against the Ravens last week, Banks said that despite how fast the game moved, he “felt comfortable by the second series.” With the playbook on complete lockdown and a willingness to learn, Banks is the type of player coaches love to have on the field right away.
Once a lightly-recruited prospect out of high school, Banks will not become complacent and will take advantage of each opportunity given to him. He instantly became a starter as a freshman at Mississippi State, so he has experience being thrown into a starting role early, and that could be his biggest advantage moving forward with the Buccaneers. Teams traditionally do not like to start rookies, especially players who were not first round draft choices. But Tampa Bay has a unique situation, and this young corner could be “Money in the Bank” for a team that desperately needs another strong corner to play bump-and-run coverage with Revis. Look for this big-time talent to continue to make plays in the preseason and do not be surprised if Schiano opts to give him the starting nod prior to opening week against the Saints.