Five Indispensable Bucs On Defense

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We’ve already discussed the most important Buccaneers on the offensive side of the ball. So now it’s time to list the indispensable Bucs on defense.

The Buccaneers defense has a chance to be really special this year. But these five players have to be on the field if they want to be one of the league’s best units in 2021.

All stats are from the regular season unless otherwise noted.


5. Antoine Winfield Jr.

Just like Tristan Wirfs, Winfield made an immediate impact in his first year.

AWjr came in and provided an instant upgrade at safety for the Bucs defense. Todd Bowles used him in just about every way possible: in centerfield, in the box, as a blitzer, playing the slot, covering tight ends. Winfield can do it all.

He played 97% of defensive snaps in 2020, finishing with 94 total tackles, 3.0 sacks, one interception, six PBUs, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and four quarterback hits. Per Pro Football Focus, his 3.0 sacks and his nine pressures were third-most and tied for the ninth-best at his position among players with at least 499 snaps.

Winfield was especially strong as a run defender. Per PFF, he graded out as the league’s best rookie safety and the second-best safety overall. The addition of the former Golden Gopher helped the Buccaneers defense hold on to the league’s No. 1 run defense for the second straight year.

In terms of pass coverage, Winfield stands to improve, but he’s not a liability. Per Sports Info Solutions, he ranked 20th out of 67 possible safeties in EPA/tgt allowed with a mark of 0.37 EPA/tgt. He gave up the 16th-highest positive play percentage (57.7%) among safeties who saw at least 18 targets in 2020. But even though coverage wasn’t his strong suit, you could tell the Buccaneers pass defense wasn’t as effective without Winfield. Even if Mike Edwards is a solid backup.

But what makes Winfield invaluable is his ability to be a playmaker. This showed up time and time again throughout the season. Winfield turned it up when it mattered the most, though, making two of the defense’s biggest plays of the year during the final two months of the season.

First up is the infamous end zone PBU against Calvin Ridley and the Falcons. The Bucs fought back from a 24-7 deficit to tie the game at 24-24. But the Falcons faced a 2nd and 6 from the Bucs 27-yard line with about 9:30 left in the fourth quarter.

Matt Ryan sees Ridley streaking across the Bucs defense and launches the ball to the back-right corner of the end zone. Ridley has a step, so it looks like a guaranteed touchdown.

But Winfield -showing his range and athleticism- makes a diving effort to break the pass up at the last moment.

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Antoine Winfield Jr. made one of the best plays of the year against Calvin Ridley and the Falcons.

The key with this play is not just the deflection, however. Devin White sacked Ryan on the next to play to force a field goal. Instead of 31-24, it was now 27-24.

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Another shot of the fantastic play.

The Bucs would go on to win, 31-27. There’s a great chance they don’t win this game if Winfield doesn’t make this play.

And then there’s the forced fumble against Jared Cook and the Saints in the playoffs. The Buccaneers were down, 20-13, with a little over 5:00 left in third quarter and the Saints were driving. Drew Brees hit Cook across the middle to convert the 3rd and 2 play, but Winfield was right there to force the fumble. White followed up yet again and recovered the fumble.

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This was another game-changing play provided by Winfield.

This play changed the game, as well. The Saints would not score another point as the Buccaneers would go on to win, 30-20.

It’s one thing for a player to be a good player. But it takes players to a whole new level when they make plays like Winfield does.

4. Carlton Davis III

Davis is the Buccaneers’ No. 1 corner and a good one, at that. Since 2019, he has more PBUs (32) than any other cornerback with at least 270 coverage snaps, per PFF. His four interceptions tied for third-most and he had the 10th-best forced interception percentage (16%) in the NFL in 2020.

It’s not just about numbers with Davis. He has a track record of shutting down the league’s elite receivers. It all started in 2019 when he held Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins to a combined 17 catches for 169 yards on 32 targets in three games.

Davis’ ability to play with the best continued into 2020. Just check out PFF’s 2020 Shadow Coverage Matrix table below:

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CDIII did work in 2020.

Outside of Tyreek Hill, no one could get anything done when Davis was on them.

Davis held Michael Thomas and Davante Adams to just 12 combined receptions, 106 combined receiving yards and one receiving touchdown in five contests. Davis was also on both players for the majority of the game, evidenced by his minimal 50% coverage rate.

To put that into context, Mike Evans had at four games with at least 106 receiving yards and 12 games with at least one touchdown -playoffs included- in 2020 alone.

Davis also contained Allen Robinson II and DJ Moore, two very good receivers in their own right. It’s easy to see why the Bucs think he is one of the league’s best corners.

Where Davis needs to improve the most is his tendency to draw flags. Per SIS, he led all corners with five DPIs. Per PFF, he finished with the third-most overall penalties (9) in 2020. It’s not just 2020, either. Per PFF, Davis tied for the league with 12 overall penalties in 2019.

Overall, Davis is a great fit for what Todd Bowles looks for in his corners: tall, long-armed, physical, and tough. Davis’ ability to lock down top receivers not only takes pressure off his fellow corners and safeties, but it also allows Bowles to be more aggressive in his play calling. That in itself makes Davis the most important player in the secondary and one of the most important players on the Bucs defense.

3. Shaquil Barrett

Barrett was the best pass-rusher on the Bucs defense in 2020. He was one of the league’s best, as well. Even if his sack numbers were down.

Next Gen Stats marked Barrett as the NFL’s seventh-most disruptive pass-rusher in 2020 with a 15.2% Disruption Rate. He’s also the first player in the Next Gen Era (since 2016) to force six or more turnovers on pressures in consecutive seasons.

Per PFF, Barrett led all EDGE players with 73 pressures in 2020. That’s more than TJ Watt (who led the league in sacks), Joey Bosa, Carl Lawson, Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack, and Myles Garrett. Barrett’s 12.7 Pass Rush Productivity mark was eighth-best when rushing against a true pass set. His 26.8% win percentage was eighth-best among all EDGE players with at least 277 pass-rush snaps, as well.

Per SIS, his 15% pressure rate was the eighth-highest among all players with at least 30 pressures in 2020.

Sacks are great and all, but there is an argument that pressures are just as important/a better indicator of how good a defense is at getting after the quarterback.

This is a good example of how pressure can still cause issues for the offense. Barrett blows by guard Nick Easton on the stunt and the end result is an incompletion for Brees.

Barrett is on the right of your screen:

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Shaquil Barrett beats Nick Easton on the stunt and almost sacks Drew Brees.

Granted, that is a blown assignment on Easton’s part, but it still shows how pressure can affect the offense.

But even if pressures are more important on the surface, that doesn’t matter to Barrett. He wants to finish the job when it comes to taking down opposing quarterbacks.

“I think pressures only matter if you’re getting sacks,” Barrett told Bucs Report during the week of mandatory minicamp.

That’s exactly what you want to hear from a player and that’s the type of killer mentality that has made Barrett into not just the Buccaneers’ best pass rusher, but one of the NFL’s best, as well.

Barrett saved his two best performances when it mattered most in 2020: The NFC Championship game against the Packers and then Super Bowl LV against the Chiefs. Per PFF, he recorded a combined 16 pressures (including a season-high 10 in the Super Bowl) and 4.0 sacks (including a season-high three against the Packers) in those two games.

A lot of it has to do with Barrett’s excellent technique. But a lot of it also has to the with the other players on the Bucs defense and the scheme Bowles likes to deploy. When you factor in how both elements go hand-in-hand, then it’s easy to see why Barrett means so much to the Buccaneers defense.

2. Ndamukong Suh

I went back and forth, then forth and back, then back and forth again when determining whether or not it should be Suh or Vita Vea on this list. In the end, I ultimately chose Suh and here’s why:

Vea is a key cog in this defense. There is no mistaking this. What he does at his size and what he does as a benefactor for the pass rush is something that the other defensive linemen can’t do. However, we’ve seen this Buccaneers defense without Vea for the majority of the season. We’ve never lived life without Suh. And the Bucs defense remained one of the league’s best even though Vea missed 11 regular season games in 2020.

Per Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers defense averaged a -15.3 overall DVOA, a 3.16 pass defense DVOA, and a -36.9 run defense DVOA through the first five games with Vea in the lineup. Those numbers would’ve been good for fifth, 13th, and first overall, respectively.

Without Vea, the defense averaged a -16.5 overall DVOA, a -9.38 pass defense DVOA, and a -31.7 run defense DVOA. Those numbers would’ve been good for fifth, fifth, and first overall.

Keep in mind all of FO’s numbers are opponent-adjusted. Therefore, they take into account when the Bucs defense is going up against a lesser or tougher opponent.

There’s an argument to be made that the defense can carry on without Vea. And that’s because Suh is on this roster.

Suh has an edge unlike any other player on the Bucs defense. He can be one of the meanest sons-of-bitches in the league and he plays like it, too. He is the only defensive linemen on the Buccaneers roster -outside Vea, of course- who demands double teams.

The fact of the matter is that Suh, like Vea, has to be accounted for on every play. And so far, he hasn’t had the injury issues in Tampa Bay like Vea. Sure, Vea makes Suh’s life easier, but Suh showed in 2020 that he can still produce without Vea. Four of his six sacks came during weeks 6-17 and so did 13 of his 19 quarterback hits.

Suh’s 2020 season was an incredible step up from 2019. One could even consider it his best season since 2015. As he enters Year 3 in the Buccaneers defense, 2021 should be even better.

1. Lavonte David

David has been the best player on the Bucs defense for some time now. He’s also been one of the best linebackers in the NFL since the Buccaneers drafted him in 2012.

The numbers back it up. Per Pro Football Reference, David has the eighth-most tackles in NFL history through his first nine seasons in the league. That’s more than Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Brian Urlacher. Both Seau and Urlacher also played in at least 137 games through their first seasons, which is the same amount David played. So it’s not like David has an advantage in terms of more playing time.

David has the most tackles for loss in NFL history through nine seasons –by a wide margin– and his 24.0 sacks are better than Ray Lewis‘ 22.0 and Patrick Willis‘ 20.5 at this point. His 55 quarterback hits are the fifth-most in NFL history.

It’s not just about David’s past play when it comes to making him the most important player on the Bucs defense. He’s still one of the league’s best linebackers. PFF even recently ranked him as the 49th-best player heading into 2021. He finished 2020 with a career-high nine PBUs and his 114 combined tackles were the most since 2014.

He’s an intelligent player who has the size and speed to not only disrupt plays in the backfield, but move from sideline to sideline. David’s coverage abilities are among the best at his position. He can match up the league’s top tight ends and pass-catching running backs. And much like Davis’ ability to shutdown No. 1 receivers, David’s prowess in coverage allows the Buccaneers defense to remain fluid in its scheme and disguise(s).

David is also the heart and soul of the Buccaneers defense. He’s the longest-tenured Buc by a mile and he’s been one of the team captains on defense since 2014. His quiet leadership and let-my-play-do-the-talking approach is the perfect foundation for an NFL team.

It’s why the Buccaneers re-signed David to a two-year, $25 million dollar at the age of 31. They know he is still playing at a high level and they know he is the most important player on defense.


Who are your most important players on the Bucs defense? Let us know via the comment section below!

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