Eagle Eye: From Friend To Foe, Plenty Of Familiar Faces On Bucs Defense

This Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense is explosive and aggressive, and they’ll bring a lot of talent to the field at the skill positions on Sunday afternoon, but what about this defense? This is a unit that struggled in a handful of areas last year, namely up front. The Bucs didn’t defend the run well enough in 2017 and finished last in the league with just 22 sacks. They’ve tried to overhaul that group, with three new starters up front, but the lone returnee is the best player in the entire starting 11 - defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

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McCoy’s best trait is his get-off. He’s very explosive off the ball and has outstanding reaction quickness, so he’s one of the first guys up and out of his stance on a consistent basis. This skill allows him to threaten gaps on every snap, making him their best disruptor up front. Even if he’s not the one making the play in the backfield, he’s a player who can create opportunities for his teammates.

It’s not just McCoy up front for the Bucs anymore. They’ve acquired a handful of new players, including two former Eagles in Beau Allen and Vinny Curry along with a former Eagles rival in defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Those three got the start alongside McCoy on Sunday against the Saints.

Pierre-Paul is a loose-hipped athlete with great length who is a threat to get home at any point. JPP got most of his reps as a left defensive end during his time with the New York Giants, but he has lined up exclusively on the other side against left tackles as a Buc. He can win with his feet and flexible core as a pass rusher.

On the opposite side of Pierre-Paul is Curry, who Eagles fans know very well. Vinny is a high-effort player who can win with both speed and power. He knows what to expect on Sunday against an Eagles offensive line that he practiced against every day throughout his six-year career in Philly. The same can be said for nose tackle Beau Allen, who was up to his old tricks eating up blockers along the interior of the line for Tampa last week in New Orleans. Allen is a powerful player who can help keep people clean while also getting his own penetration up front for this Bucs defensive line.

The reserves who saw the most time for Tampa Bay this summer and in Week 1 were defensive end Carl Nassib, who the team picked up off waivers from the Cleveland Browns after Training Camp. Nassib is a long, high-effort player who gave them a handful of good snaps against the Saints. He can line up at both spots. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy spells McCoy at times and has come a long way during his NFL career as a former second-round pick. He’s got a quick first step and can win off the ball. William Gholston gets reps both inside and outside as a nose tackle and a defensive end. He’s got rare length and can defend the run pretty well on the edge, though pad level has been an issue for him on the inside. Former second-round pick Noah Spence only played a handful of snaps in Week 1, but don’t count him out for this week to see time. The team also spent a top-15 pick on nose tackle Vita Vea, but he’s been out for a few weeks with a calf injury and won’t play against the Eagles on Sunday.

Not only did the Buccaneers revamp the personnel, but they are trying some new things from a pressure scheme standpoint as well.

Defensive coordinator Mike Smith didn’t do anything THIS extravagant against the Saints in Week 1, but he did send extra pressure more than his normal rate on Sunday. Kwon Alexander was typically the extra blitzer, and for good reason.

Alexander is a freak-show athlete, especially moving in a straight line when he has a clean alley to the football. An explosive mover with great short-area burst, he is a competitive sideline-to-sideline player who I would mark as the other blue-chip player on this Tampa Bay defense. He’s not the biggest or strongest, so he will pop off of tackle attempts at times, but Alexander must be accounted for on every run play because he can track down any perimeter runner.

By lining up in reduced fronts where defensive linemen are "covering up" all of the interior offensive linemen, the Bucs make it difficult for opponents to work up to the second level to block Alexander. He’s so explosive that, paired with their front alignments, he’s allowed to play free and locate the ball from sideline to sideline in the middle of that defense.

Veteran linebacker Lavonte David has a very similar skill set to Alexander. He’s just a couple of years older. David is an explosive athlete with a mean streak, and they trust him out in space in coverage. Several times against the Saints, as the Bucs prepared to line up in zone coverage, David was matched up with star receiver Michael Thomas one-on-one before the snap. The Bucs have a lot of faith in his abilities as an instinctive captain at the second level of the defense. Adarius Taylor is the starting strongside linebacker, and he only plays in the base defense. He’ll play over the tight end and can play moving in reverse as well as straight ahead as a blitzer.

The secondary is a bit of a mash unit right now for Tampa Bay. Veteran corner Brent Grimes is out with a groin injury. Former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III was placed on Injured Reserve this week. That means we’ll see plenty of two rookie corners for the Bucs this week in M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis.

Davis has struggled a bit this summer and in Week 1, but he’s a long, physical, competitive corner who showed great flashes over his career as a three-year starter for Auburn. Stewart was an experienced and versatile player at North Carolina, where he befriended Eagles receiver Mack Hollins. Stewart is instinctive, tough, and has great ball skills. His competitive toughness showed up every time I watched him with the Tar Heels, and he’ll likely get his first NFL start against the team he grew up rooting for as a kid.

On the back end of the defense, free safety Justin Evans shines. He’s an athletic kid with good ball skills as well. The former second-round pick from Texas A&M was knocked for his abilities as a run defender coming out of college, but I never saw it as a lack of willingness. He showed a want-to as a hitter downhill. The Eagles must be aware of him patrolling the post downfield.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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