TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross remembers the feeling of awe and excitement when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993 and first lined up against the newly acquired Joe Montana. Ross was going into his 10th season at the time and the Chiefs already had one of the league’s top-ranked secondaries. But now he was going to be practicing against the guy who led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles.
The Chiefs had to step up or they’d be getting their lunch handed to them daily, much like the Bucs’ secondary -- the NFL’s youngest with an average age of 23 years and 329 days by Week 17 last season -- is experiencing now with Tom Brady.
“He taught me how to play safety,” Ross said of Montana. “I moved from corner, to nickel to safety -- he taught me what he was looking at, my feet, my eyes. ... And I learned a lot from him just by talking to him.”
The Bucs are hoping for something similar from Brady, that iron will sharpen iron and that their secondary that was their Achilles' heel last season can make an even bigger jump than it did at the end of last season, when it went from surrendering a 65.3% completion percentage in Weeks 1-11 to 55.4% in Weeks 12-17.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said this spring of his young secondary, "Mentally, they're still puppies,” and that while they finally know his defense, “they have to graduate mentally to understand what the offenses are trying to do to them.”
There has been no better teacher of that than TB12, and his presence is vitally important considering the Bucs face quarterbacks this year who have thrown a combined 2,120 career touchdown passes. They’ll see Brees and Matt Ryan twice, and they’ll face Super Bowl MVPs Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. They’ll also twice see Teddy Bridgewater, who beat them stepping in for Brees last year, along with Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr.
“If you can play against Brady every day, playing against any other quarterback should be easy,” third-year safety Jordan Whitehead said.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting -- who lines up on the outside opposite Carlton Davis as a starter, but moves inside during nickel passing situations -- has seen how Brady exploits the soft zones of the defense.
“A lot of my Cover 2s, just me being inside at nickel, obviously they send a lot of things in front of me and bait me to jump those things,” said Murphy-Bunting, the Bucs’ second-round draft pick last year.
“There was one particular play ... where I’m pretty sure there was a curl that stopped right in front of me but there was a dig behind me -- and he pumped me on the curl so he kind of brought me up because I’m going off of his throw. So he pumped me on the curl and threw it right over my top. So that was kind of one of those plays where I have to be smart and consistent and read my keys properly.”
Just as Montana did with Ross, Brady has used those moments as teaching opportunities.
“He’s just always critiquing me, and helping me out with my leverages and telling me I can show more and show more and show less in this certain coverage because he’s not reading ‘me’ per se,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He’s definitely helping me out in my leverages and my coverages. And really telling me where his reads are and how he’s scanning the defense.”
Understanding leverage is vital for a nickelback. Inside, receivers have a two-way go, so Murphy-Bunting has to decide which side he is going to try to take away and must correctly anticipate the throw.
“He doesn’t really give you his first read right away,” Murphy-Bunting said. “He scans the field and you can see that as a nickel -- you can see him scanning the field, scanning everything that he has. So you can’t really get a good read on him and a good jump on him like you really want to.”
The art of deception
Brady is a master at selling play-action passes and, as Murphy-Bunting learned, using pump fakes to get defenders out of position. He’s also an expert at using his eyes to get safeties off their spot, which can be extremely problematic for a single-high safety who is responsible for covering a large swath of the field by himself.
“It’s just hard for a deep safety to try to read him because he’s just so locked in, trying to use different things to get a safety off leverage,” said Mike Edwards, the Bucs’ third-round draft pick last season.
“He likes to look me off a lot. It’s hard because I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s going over there,’ so I jump over there and it’s a post [route] right behind me, so it’s tough,” Edwards said, emphasizing that he has to key in to when Brady has his hands on the ball and break on it when he’s throwing.
The education for Edwards has worked. He was the first Bucs player to pick off Brady in camp, something he, Dean and Murphy-Bunting had all been vying for and even placed a friendly bet on.
Edwards joked, “I really should have kept it and had him sign it or something.”
Helping with disguised coverages
Brady is also helping his teammates get better with their disguises, something Bowles has set as a goal this year, as it will freeze a quarterback in the pocket and prevent the ball from leaving his hands so quickly.
“Coach Bowles is telling us to ‘disguise, disguise’ and do these little things, and I’m starting to realize that it does mess with the quarterback,” Whitehead said. “Just being able to line up on the other side every day and kinda just to see his eyes, to see where his eyes are, to try and mess with him a little bit.”
The Bucs utilized some form of disguise in their coverages on 121 of 1,071 snaps last season in their first year of switching to Bowles’ defense -- which ranked 16th in the league -- and a far cry from what Bowles has done in the past with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. They had to keep things basic because of their youth and inexperience, as thinking too much tends to slow defensive backs down.
“I think every single day they’re improving,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Tom obviously helps the improvement, understanding the defense, using proper technique -- all those things help you every single day.”
So does competition, which players on both sides of the ball have said distinguishes these practices from other training camps. They believe there has been more intensity and competition between the offense and the defense.
“The biggest compliment I can give him is that he throws great incompletions,” said Bowles, who went 1-8 against Brady as the head coach of the New York Jets and interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins. “If his guy doesn’t get the ball, he puts it in a place where you really can’t. He’s really like a pitcher -- he can paint the outside part of the plate, he can throw it down and away, he can throw it high and tight. It’s very understated, but it’s very important as a quarterback.”
“He’s a dog out there,” rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said of Brady. “Every time he throws a ball, it’s a perfect pass in perfect places.”
There’s also the added motivation of not wanting to let the six-time Super Bowl winner down.
“You’re going against the GOAT every day. He motivates me, just his presence being out there. I’m just looking forward to keep getting better off of him,” Whitehead said.
“I’ve never faced a quarterback like him,” Davis said, adding that Brady has made him better, even in his film study. “I’m starting to see what he sees, how he’s kind of dissecting us before the play and what I can do to be better.
“It’s been kind of like a dream come true to be able to go against one of the best ever, or the best ever. I can’t even put it into words.”