Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers’ 30-27 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.
But Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter isn’t down on the Bucs’ secondary, particularly rookie cornerback Carlton Davis.
“I thought Carlton Davis was outstanding in the game,” Koetter said. “I think for the guys he was having to cover, he showed no fear. The game wasn’t too big for him. He didn’t back down. Played a lot of press coverage. Got right up in their face.”
By the time Tampa Bay selected Davis from Auburn with the 63rd choice in the NFL Draft in April, eight cornerbacks already had been chosen.
Three weeks into the season, only one of those cornerbacks has played more than Davis. As a starter in every game this season, Davis has been on the field for 93.8 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps — 196 of 209. The only one of the cornerbacks drafted before Davis who has played more than the former Auburn standout this season was the first to come off the board — Denzel Ward, who went to the Cleveland Browns with the fourth choice. Ward has played 98.6 percent of the Browns’ defensive snaps.
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But Davis’ workload is in danger of a decline on Sunday, when Tampa Bay visits the Chicago Bears. Davis showed up on the Buccaneers’ injury report as a limited participant in Friday’s practice, and a groin problem has him listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.
Davis’ absence would be another blow for the Tampa Bay secondary. Starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves has gone on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, and starting safety Chris Conte joined him this week after getting hurt against the Steelers.
The Bucs’ other projected starting cornerback, Brent Grimes, got on the field for the first time this season against Pittsburgh. The injuries have contributed to Davis’ quick climb into the lineup and also brought two other rookies, cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead, onto the field against Pittsburgh on Monday night.
“For a good part of the game when we were in nickel defense, we had three rookies out there,” Koetter said. “Is there going to be some growing pains with three rookies in your secondary and right now two of our starting four to-start-the-year DBs are out? Yeah, there’s going to be some growing pains. But at the same time, we really like what those guys have shown so far.”
In addition to Roethlisberger, Tampa Bay’s young secondary faced Drew Brees in a 48-40 season-opening victory over the New Orleans Saints and Nick Foles in a 27-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 16.
“We’ve been very pleased with how they’ve worked for us thus far,” Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. “They’ve been battled-tested, that’s for sure. Faced two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a guy who was the MVP of the Super Bowl. They haven’t had any slack, that’s for sure.”
When Davis joined Tampa Bay, Koetter cited the cornerback’s size as one of his most attractive attributes, particularly important with the Bucs facing big receivers Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, Devin Funchess of the Carolina Panthers and Mike Thomas of the Saints twice each season.
“He’s a big, strong corner who plays well when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage than when he’s off,” Smith said, “and I think we’re seeing that as the games start getting put in the books.”
But against the Steelers, Davis often matched up with wide receiver Antonio Brown, who’s 5-foot-10 but also a four-time All-Pro. Brown finished Monday night’s game with his smallest stats of the season with six receptions for 50 yards, but he did catch a touchdown pass.
The Buccaneers and Bears are scheduled to kick off at noon CDT Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
While Tampa Bay’s 2-1 start could be considered a little surprising with quarterback Jameis Winston missing the three games while serving an NFL suspension, Chicago also is 2-1 for the first time since 2014 and is the only NFC North team with two victories this season.