Rookie CBs Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart adapt to Bucs' coverage

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie cornerback Carlton Davis stood face-to-face with wide receiver Justin Watson -- a little more than a foot away -- and in a split second used his 78 3/8-inch wingspan to swipe at Watson's shoulder pad as he exploded off the line of scrimmage. Watson countered with a swim release, freeing himself from Davis, yet Davis stayed with Watson, nearly stride for stride as he sprinted across the field.

Getting physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of bigger receivers such as Watson is what Davis came to be known for in three years at Auburn and is a big reason the Bucs selected him No. 63 overall in last month's NFL draft. They want him to be able to counter the likes of the Saints' Michael Thomas, the Panthers' Devin Funchess and the Falcons' Julio Jones.

But the Bucs play mostly off coverage with their cornerbacks. Defenders line up about six to eight yards off the line of scrimmage and typically don't get physical in the first five yards of the receiver's route. It works for smaller, undersized cornerbacks such as Brent Grimes, but the concept might work against Davis, who, at 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, clocked a 4.53 at the NFL combine and might not have the quickness to catch up.

"The way I learned DB in college initially was I played on and off, so I played press and off, and then my last two years I played a lot of press-man," Davis explained. "So, just coming here, it takes time to just getting back to playing off and get comfortable with it. So, it wasn't a huge step for me, but I guess I am back acclimated with it and I am comfortable now."

The same can be said for North Carolina cornerback M.J. Stewart, who the Bucs selected with the No. 53 overall pick. Stewart is 5-foot-11, 200 pounds and clocked a 4.53 in Indianapolis, drawing concerns about his recovery speed.

Although Stewart is known as a jack-of-all-trades and can line up on the outside, inside and even at safety, he's at his best when he can press. In fact, when he was in high school, he had the opportunity to meet Richard Sherman -- one of the best to do it -- and learn his technique. Now he's having to study a lot of Grimes' tape because the Bucs want Stewart playing off coverage.

"My whole career at Carolina, we played press all the time. It's a learning curve. But I'm getting there slowly but surely," Stewart said.

"You've just got to be able to read their stem and when bringing cushion, you've gotta know when to open your hips up."

He added, "I do like to get handsy at the line of scrimmage."

Why did the Bucs draft Davis and Stewart, who excel at pressing, to play a more passive game and do something entirely different than what they did in college? The thought process is that it's easier to draft players who play press coverage -- which is generally considered more difficult -- and teach them to play off coverage than it is the other way around. But that's not always the case.

The struggles of Vernon Hargreaves, selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, were a big reason the Bucs drafted Davis and Stewart. Hargreaves, who dealt with a hamstring injury last season, hasn't been able to use his physicality or aggressiveness at the next level. Guys such as Atlanta's Jones have gotten out in front of him too often.

That's not to say Hargreaves can't play off coverage. In college, one of his most notable plays at Florida -- intercepting Chad Kelly in 2015 -- came in off coverage. It was fourth-and-20 and the sizable cushion Hargreaves gave Cody Core was appropriate for the situation -- off coverage is designed to eliminate the big play -- and Hargreaves jumped the route and returned it 36 yards.

The reason teams play off coverage is to keep everything in front of them and allow cornerbacks to have their eyes on the quarterback. The Bucs also haven't had the pass rush or the ideal safety help that press coverage requires. And it wears defenders out to play press coverage for an entire game. But the Bucs have failed to prevent the short passes teams throw against off coverage, and often times those completions have led to explosive gains.

Last season, on passes of five or fewer air yards, the Tampa Bay defense allowed 5.08 yards after the catch -- 26th in the league. Tampa Bay also allowed opponents 6.68 yards per reception before first contact. That's where Davis could help. Pro Football Focus noted Davis' success on quick slants. He allowed seven catches, but receivers were held to an average of just 1.0 yard after the catch per reception.

Stewart also finished his career as UNC's all-time leader in pass-breakups with 41. The real question is, can their college success translate when asked to play such a different technique?

Bucs coach Dirk Koetter seems to think so. He marveled at some of the early returns from Davis, who was asked to play mostly off coverage in his first day of rookie camp.

"Carlton probably had one of the best days of anybody out there on defense [Friday]," Koetter said. "We already knew he was a good player in press coverage, but we wanted to see him play some off coverage as well, and he did a really good job. We were fired up with the way he was playing."