TAMPA – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the easiest and most direct route in finding a place on their roster for new safety T.J. Ward, simply swapping out one thumper for another.
It took a preliminary swap to create the opening, though.
The Bucs on Sunday traded safety J.J. Wilcox and a 2019 seventh-round draft pick to the Steelers for a 2018 sixth-round draft pick, the team announced.
The deal creates the opening the Bucs needed after they signed Ward to a one-year, $4.5 million contract shortly after he was released on Saturday by the Broncos.
Ward now joins a safety corps that includes projected starters Chris Conte and Keith Tandy as well as rookie Justin Evans, the team’s second-round draft pick (50th overall) this past spring.
Wilcox came to the Bucs during free agency, signing a two-year, $6.25 million deal that included a guaranteed $1 million roster bonus as well as a $250,000 miscellaneous bonus.
The deal also called for Wilcox’s $2.5 million salary for the 2017 season to be full guaranteed but the Bucs are no longer on the hook for the salary, only the bonuses.
The trade was one of several moves made on Sunday by the Bucs, who re-signed several of the players who were with them during the preseason to their practice squad.
The most notable was probably linebacker Riley Bullough, who fans got to know in-depth through the exposure the Bucs have received by being the subject of this year’s season of Hard Knocks on HBO.
Also being signed to the Bucs practice squad on Sunday were:
DE Sterling Bailey
RB Russell Hansbrough
FB Austin Johnson
S Isaiah Johnson
OL Mike Liedtke
T Marquis Lucas
WR Freddie Martino
CB Jonathan Moxey
LB Eric Nzeocha
WR Bobo Wilson
Three things that can be immediately better for Bucs defense Sunday
The Bucs are suddenly struggling, having lost three straight games and have taken the drastic measure of firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith earlier in the week.
So now, those that have been erupting on sports radio and all over the internet screaming about how a change in defensive play-calling had to happen have gotten their wish.
Now, comes the reality of what has to be better for the Buccaneers starting Sunday, with linebackers coach Mark Duffner now at the controls of the D. And will it help their match-up at home with the Browns and moving forward for the rest of the year?
We have come up with three things that are rather obvious, seem to be essential to the Buccaneers defenders on the field executing what’s being called and playing better-more effective from week to week.
Simplify things for the young secondary
Too many times over the first five games, the Buccaneers rookies like DB M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead and other relatively inexperienced players in the secondary have looked lost trying to cover the likes of: the Saints Michael Thomas, the Steelers Antonio Brown, the first half disaster in Chicago with a gave up five touchdown passes and last week Falcons Julio Jones catching 11 more passes.
And in most cases, those big-name receivers were running wide open through the Bucs secondary. Too many times, the defensive backs were not on the same page about who should be covering whom, and that is something that has to be simplified and iron out.
Duffner’s main task this week has to have been make sure that the players are sure of where to be and when in their coverages.
That leads to… a better pass rush knocking down and sacking the quarterback
With the exception of Jason Pierre-Paul, who we wrote about again yesterday, there hasn’t been much impact from the Buccaneers bringing in free agents and drafting a defensive tackle in the first round of the NFL draft.
A year ago, Tampa Bay was dead last in sacks, the Bucs currently have only 9 Sacks through the first five games and that is 29th in the NFL.
Now, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has missed two practices with a calf injury and his status for Sunday is uncertain. Still, guys like rookie Vita Vea, DE Vinny Curry and even former second round pick Noah Spence (who’s had trouble being active) have to step up and rush the QB.
And finally, will we see more blitzing?
After “laying back” for the entire first half of the Bears blowout and not blitzing, the Bucs were much more aggressive last week in Atlanta. Time and again, they brought linebackers, sometimes two of them, and they brought pressure with safeties and even cornerback blitzes, too.
Now Atlanta still had success, as Matt Ryan threw for 354 yards and three scores.
Still, an aggressive mentality that Duffner will likely continue with his defensive play calls was there: don’t just sit back with multiple rookies in the secondary and hope to “play coverage” and succeed.
It will take players like LB’s LaVonte David (above) and Kwon Alexander and hard hitting safety Justin Evans rushing Browns rookie QB Baker Mayfield and getting to him with knockdowns and sacks. David has at times over the last three seasons under Smith’s scheme been almost an afterthought.
He’s one of the best inside linebackers in football. Let’s see if he starts getting the “green light” to make more plays by blitzing.
If he and the Buccaneers do have success in that area, there is no doubt the Bucs will see immediate results.
Bucs DE Pierre-Paul- “I’m doing it for another Superbowl”
The Buccaneers defense is searching – searching for solutions after starting the season as arguably the worst pass defense in the NFL, and they have to find answers.
On Wednesday, veteran Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was trying to help come up with some of those answers, as the Bucs get set to take on the Browns back home on Sunday.
The first and most dramatic change this week is the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday. It really was not a surprise that the move was made, as the outcry had grown louder and louder for Smith’s dismissal with each passing week. And, when it was obvious the pass defense in particular, seemingly could not stop any quarterback for any extended period of time going all the way back to the beginning of 2017.
As for Pierre-Paul, he was acquired in March in a trade from the New York Giants- a place where he’d been to the Pro Bowl twice. And then, there’s something that should excite Bucs fans that JPP was talking about on Wednesday, the Superbowl:
"The main goal is trying to make the playoffs this year. That's the main goal."
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) October 17, 2018
Pierre-Paul saying “I’m doing it for another Superbowl,” will undoubtedly be mocked by some, but it’s also a standard that is worth striving for in that Buccaneers locker room.
And what Pierre-Paul means is everyone being held to that standard to improve the pass defense in specific, and get the Buccaneers back on track.
For his part, Pierre-Paul has five sacks in 5 games to go along with six tackles for loss and 10 total quarterback hits. While none of that he’s going to replace how bad the Buccaneers pass defense has been overall, the point is jpp has been doing his part so far this season.
Will the elevation of linebackers coach Mark Duffner to defensive coordinator make a difference in terms of scheme and bringing the blitz more early and often in games? Pierre-paul addressed being more aggressive in games early on Wednesday, also:
“At times, we come out flat….and then, we change it up at halftime. I think we come out like we did (after) halftime last week, and stick to that, don’t care what the score is….we’ll be fine.”
Pierre-Paul also joked about Browns rookie number one overall pick Baker Mayfield coming to lead the Browns on Sunday:
“He’s a rookie quarterback, man. I love it. Grasping be in the NFL….and I’ll be chasing him this Sunday.”
The bottom line, as stats like these from Pro Football Focus show, the Bucs are at the bottom defensively in most measurable stats against the pass. And, veteran Pro Bowl defensive tackle is Gerald McCoy is nursing an injured calf and may not be able to play this week or in the short-term.
So, it’s an even bigger role for JPP to lead the defensive line specifically, get after Mayfield and get the Buccaneers pass defense some confidence back.
And, when he speaks of the playoffs, he speaks from experience, JPP has been there for previous times in his career, including the G-Man winning the Super Bowl over the Patriots in the 2011 season.
That should be the Bucs goal.
But, first things first, they must snap their three-game losing streak, get back to. 500 Sunday and then start worrying about the postseason, much less a Superbowl.
Stats show Bucs WR DeSean Jackson having huge impact
Among the bright spots so far this season for the Buccaneers, DeSean Jackson delivering on the promise of explosive big plays may be the brightest.
Even though the Bucs are currently struggling with a three game losing streak, there is no disputing the Jackson has brought the big play capability in his second season in Tampa Bay that GM Jason Licht, coach Dirk Koetter, and Buc fans everywhere have been hoping for.
It started with Jackson’s spectacular opening day game catching two rainbow touchdowns from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in a wild 48 – 40 upset win of the Saints. It continued the following week in the home opener against the team that drafted him, the Eagles, when Jackson caught a 75-yard bomb (above) on the first play of the game. That set the tone for Tampa Bay’s 27-21 victory.
There was clearly some early “Fitz-magic” working with those two.
And even though the sample size is just five games, it’s obvious just how big of an impact Jackson is having in helping the rest of Tampa Bay’s pass offense.
Want some stats?
Jackson leads the entire NFL among receivers who have at least 20 receptions with a 23.9 average per catch. Again, the best per catch average in the league.
Next, a stat that Koetter and others pay very close attention to is: “explosive plays” and DeSean Jackson has eight of those of 20 yards or more pickups through five games. That’s tied him for 8th among all receivers in the NFL.
Jackson is fifth in the NFL with a 102 yard average receiving yards per game total. He is actually one of only five receivers (Adam Thielen, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas are the others) that is averaging 100 yards per game.
And talk about productivity on his catches?
Jackson has staggering 18 first downs or touchdowns on his 21 receptions this season. No other receiver with at least 15 catches has anywhere close to that ratio of first downs/scores per catch.
Again, he’s #1 in the NFL in that category.
And if you need one more verification, the guys at Pro Football Focus grade every player on every play with their own metric scoring system. Take a look at who the top scoring receiver in the NFL is per play, regardless of where he lines up on the field:
The most productive wide receivers on a per snap basis so far this season. pic.twitter.com/AKFLOKqlps
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 16, 2018
This is exactly what Licht had hoped for, when he landed Jackson as a free agent in March of 2017 giving him over 25 million dollars guaranteed to sign with Tampa Bay.
Now, with the understanding there are still 11 games to play this season and Jackson needs to keep productivity like this at a high level. And now QB Jameis Winston is back trying to hook up with the speedy veteran. Still, there is every reason to believe he will continue to make big plays and help Tampa Bay win football games this season.
You certainly cannot argue with the numbers above that show Jackson has delivered on everything that the Buccaneers and their fans could have hoped for so far in 2018.
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