These days, it’s always gloomy in Tampa Bay, home of the last-place Buccaneers.
The team, which at 3-4 is still alive in the NFC playoff race, says it’s in “win now” mode. In reality, it feels more like survival mode.
As dark as it might feel in the lead-up to this Sunday’s game in Carolina, there are flickers of promise, even on a defense that is on pace to allow the most points in NFL history.
One of them is safety Jordan Whitehead. The Bucs’ fourth-round draft pick got the start last Sunday against the Bengals and turned in a strong performance, particularly against the run.
Among his highlights was a fourth-and-1 stop on Cincinnati’s first drive. After receiving the handoff, running back Joe Mixon stepped toward the middle as if he was going to plow through the defensive line but then cut back to the left edge. Whitehead was there waiting for him.
There were two keys to the play. One, the Bengals called the same run a few plays earlier.
“I kind of had it in my head,” Whitehead said. “It was the same formation.”
The other key was defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was lined up across from tight end C.J. Uzomah.
“(Pierre-Paul) did a good job closing his gap, so that the tight end didn’t get to reach me,” Whitehead said. “I went to my gap and knew it was fourth and 1, so I just shot it.”
This was the second time in two games that the Bucs defense prevented a conversion on fourth and 1. (In Week 7 against the Browns, it stuffed Baker Mayfield on a quarterback sneak.) The last three times an opponent converted a fourth and 1 against Tampa Bay, it went on to score a touchdown.
On Cincinnati’s next offensive play, Whitehead came up with another stop when he charged from his deep safety position to tackle receiver Tyler Boyd, who was running from left to right on a jet sweep, for a 2-yard loss.
“I saw that they handed the ball off, so my job was just to run ‘alley,’” Whitehead said. “(Linebacker Lavonte David) got outside, which made my job easy. I just had to run down the middle.”
The tackle for loss was Whitehead’s second of the season, which, along with M.J. Stewart, is the most among Bucs defensive backs.
“I like that he’s not shy about getting his nose into the fits in the run game,” defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said of Whitehead. “He’s an active player, that’s for sure.”
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.