Beware of ‘heat-seeking missiles’ in Bucs secondary, coach warns

TAMPA — Bucs defensive backs coach Kevin Ross doesn’t do a ton of interviews and is not prone to hyperbole.

He played 14 seasons, all but three with Kansas City, was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team, two Pro Bowls. He’s also coached more than 20 years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with the Bucs. So when Ross speaks about the play of a secondary, it’s expert testimony.

With an interview room lectern as his pulpit, Ross delivered a purposeful prediction: Opponents had better be wary of the Bucs secondary, particularly after the return of safety Jordan Whitehead from the Jets.

“We missed Jordan. I can tell you that,” Ross said this past week. “Jordan was the engine, that actually to me, the Super Bowl year, he was the guy that initiated this contact. We now have heat-seeking missiles back there. So people better be careful. They better be careful. I like what we got. I like this year’s secondary. I should say I love this secondary.”

That sentiment was echoed by long-time safeties coach Nick Rapone, who was caught on video learning of Whitehead’s return.

“First of all, that should be confidential,” said Rapone, smiling. “... He’s a good football player. He was good when he was here. He was good up in New York and I would think he would be a good football player down here (again) and he’s everything you want. He loves football. He loves contact. He enjoys practicing. So my emotions got the best of me.

“But when you get somebody like that back in the fold, it’s pretty nice.”

But Whitehead’s return is not the only thing that has Ross and Rapone excited.

The Bucs were confident enough in their cornerback position to trade Carlton Davis to the Lions.

Zyon McCollum, who wound up playing more snaps than either Davis or Jamel Dean due to injuries, is the new presumptive starter at cornerback.

“Zyon put his hands on some footballs,” Ross said. “He filled in nicely. He showed you he can play on this level. We’re expecting him to take the next step. Consistency is the big thing and not giving up any crazy plays. It says we believe in him. We believe in our backups as well. We haven’t played with the same secondary in the last five years.

“Zyon can take a lot. He can do a lot. He takes pride in that. It’s true, this is the first year he’ll be (starting) at corner and we’ll see how well he plays there.”

Dean, who missed eight games due to injury the past three seasons, enters the offseason as the other starting cornerback. But the Bucs have brought in plenty of competition, including Jets free agent cornerback Bryce Hall.

“Bryce Hall is a legit starter in this league,” Ross said. “He prepares well. He’s very focused, he knows what he’s doing, he knows where his help is and things like that.”

Hall is not the only player added to the cornerback mix. The Bucs plan to move second-year pro Josh Hayes outside this season as well. Hayes led all players in special teams tackles as a rookie but played only 29 snaps on defense.

“Hayes is very physical. He’s got good hands,” Ross said. “Again, he just needs experience on the job. That corner spot is tough. We do more things with our corners than anybody else in the league. We could be playing Cover 2, we could be playing 3, they could be playing the curl flats, man-to-man — those guys do it all.

“Your first year, you’re nervous, you don’t know how to prepare, you don’t know what to expect. Now he’s in a role now where he knows what to expect. He knows what he has to do.”

If Dean is going to justify holding onto his job and the $13 million average salary, he’s going to need to stay healthy and improve in one obvious area.

“Catch the ball,” Ross said. “If he catches the ball, he’s an All Pro, he’s a Pro Bowler. All he has to do is catch the ball. ... We could’ve led the league last year in takeaways had we caught the ball the way we needed to.”

There will be other changes as well. While Christian Izien focused on playing the nickel corner position as a rookie, he will be cross-trained this year at safety.

He’ll have competition there as well from Georgia defensive back Tykee Smith, the Bucs’ third-round pick who also will compete at nickel cornerback.

“He’s probably everything that Coach (Todd) Bowles always wants to get in a safety,” Rapone said of Smith. “We’d like them taller if we can, but he’s 4.46 (in the 40-yard dash) and we cross train so much because during the season, if somebody breaks a fingernail ... he will come in as a safety and a nickel. ...

“He’s productive. He’s physical. He can run. He’s used to winning. That’s important.”

However, Whitehead rejoining All Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is what the Bucs are buzzing about. He brings a physicality and stability to a position that struggled the past two seasons without him. Keanu Neal, Logan Ryan and Ryan Neal failed to deliver.

“Jordan loves contact,” Rapone said. “He actually increased his range. We didn’t play him deep and the Jets played him deep, and you could see the twitch that he has. Probably the biggest thing is he increased his range, but it’s just a maturity thing. He’s seen a lot and he’s confident in what he can do.”

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