Remember when the Buccaneers were known for defense?
I have fond, if obscure, memories of Derrick Brooks roaming the field and Warren Sapp snapping the heads off quarterbacks and reporters. That defense died on a cold Monday night in Charlotte in 2008, crippled both by age and a series of pitiful Jon Gruden drafts.
A new Buccaneers defense has yet to rise from the ashes of a faded Super Bowl legacy. Head coach Greg Schiano managed to improve the Bucs’ run defense dramatically in a single season, but the pass defense remains a mess.
Pass defense has two main components: secondary coverage and pass rush. Both present problems for the Bucs.
It is never good news when your team needs to find two starting cornerbacks in a single offseason. The Buccaneers traded perennial problem child Aqib Talib to the Patriots and free-agent bust Eric Wright is likely to be cut before OTAs.
After jettisoning their two pill-popping, injury-prone starting corners, the Bucs will be left with Leonard Johnson, Anthony Gaitor and E.J. Biggers. These guys are better than they are given credit, but they do not possess the physical gifts necessary to hang with the league’s top receivers.
Mark Dominik has no choice but to address the position in free agency.
He missed out on the likes of Johnathan Joseph and Brandon Carr in previous years and is now left with an underwhelming free-agent class of defensive backs.
The Bucs’ best bets are Brent Grimes and Sean Smith. Though Grimes is coming off an Achilles injury, he is one of the top corners in the league when healthy. The Atlanta Falcons may let him walk given his price tag and the emergence of Robert McClain as a viable corner.
Sean Smith is a solid starter for the Miami Dolphins. While he isn’t elite, he is reliable and could anchor the Bucs’ secondary. Other free-agent targets include Jacksonville’s Derek Cox and Detroit’s Chris Houston. Both are very talented but are likely to be re-signed by their respective teams and are prone to injury.
Obviously, the Bucs will select a cornerback (or two) in the 2013 NFL draft. While it may be too early to accurately predict how the draft will shape up, it’s safe to say the Bucs will take a good, long look at Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes.
The pass rush requires considerably less personnel shuffling. The main issue Dominik needs to address is re-signing defensive end Michael Bennett. Few defensive ends in the NFL are as well-rounded as Michael Bennett, who has emerged as a top-flight pass-rusher.
While Dominik may end up overpaying him a bit, the Bucs acquired him as an undrafted free agent. He’s already a steal, and the Buccaneers have plenty of cap space to pay him properly.
The Buccaneers need less help at defensive end than most other positions. The Bucs should get Adrian Clayborn back before training camp as well as a healthier Da’Quan Bowers.
The interior defensive line requires more attention. Gerald McCoy is the only viable pass-rusher inside. Roy Miller is a great run-stopper but he rarely gets to the quarterback.
While the general consensus is that the Bucs should draft a cornerback in the first round, a defensive tackle may bring more value. Sheldon Richardson and Johnathan Hankins have great value at the 13th pick.
There is one remedy the Buccaneers have not given serious enough consideration: firing defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. His job is likely safe and I wonder why. His blitzes and stunts were chronically ineffective this season.
Is it a sign of poor coaching when your players suggest a different strategy that ends up being more effective on multiple occasions?
If so, maybe Gerald McCoy should be calling plays, because he asked for more upfield rush in place of Sheridan’s stunts during the Dallas and San Diego games, resulting in greater pass rush yields.
Considering the Buccaneers' defense finished 2013 not unlike the 2009 New York Giants', who Sheridan last served as defensive coordinator, questions about why he is permitted to keep his job are not unfounded. There are better defensive coaches available to help get this team back to being a defensive stalwart.