Secondary now a source of concern

Defensive backs coach is facing a decision at nickel corner this weekend, with questions surrounding the health of Brian Kelly. If Kelly can't play, Phillip Buchanon will move into Kelly's starting position. But who will move into Buchanon's role at nickel corner? Morris has options.

On paper, the Buccaneers looked pretty salty in the secondary to start this season.

A future Hall of Famer, Ronde Barber, would start on the left side. Brian Kelly, his perfect complement, would start on the right. And Phillip Buchanon, a former first-round pick, would be the nickel corner.

Now the secondary is in flux, just as it was a year ago.

Kelly is questionable for this weekend's game against New Orleans. His groin injury is not as serious as he feared after Sunday's loss to Seattle, but it may be serious enough to keep Kelly out of the game.

That means Buchanon will slide over to Kelly's spot on the right side. And now a position of strength — nickel corner — is a position of concern.

Just as it was last year when the Bucs lost Kelly for the season and were forced, at times, to use Torrie Cox at the nickel, where he was overmatched. The Bucs never found an adequate solution to the loss of Kelly.

Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris will spend the next few days trying to decide if fourth-year veteran Sammy Davis or third-year safety Kalvin Pearson is the best option at the nickel.

Morris seems confident one of them will step in, but neither will be as good as the position's standard, Barber.

"You can train a guy to be as good as Ronde, and I don't know if there will be another guy that good again," Morris said. "But I have two guys that can go in and play and play pretty well."

Davis is a reclamation project, in a sense. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound corner was a first-round pick in San Diego in 2003 and started as a rookie. But he fell out of favor in both San Diego and San Francisco, and Tampa Bay signed him in the offseason.

Davis made it through both training camp and the preseason, but was among the Buccaneers' final cuts. They re-signed him Tuesday, and Morris said he was relieved that Davis was still available.

"To have a guy like Sammy that knows your package, who you've been teaching for six months, a guy that's ready to go in and play, a guy that you want on your team in the first place anyway, it makes you feel pretty good," Morris said.

Davis has 31 NFL starts and had experience in nickel and dime packages in San Francisco last season.

Pearson is a player Morris called "Mr. Unique" because he can play in every formation. Pearson was re-signed in the offseason as a free agent because of his value on special teams. He has 38 special teams tackles in two seasons with Tampa Bay.

But Pearson said on Wednesday that he has experience with the nickel corner. In fact, when Buchanon slid over to the left side to take over for Kelly, Pearson is the player the Bucs turned to in the nickel packages.

"I play free (safety), strong (safety), a little nickel, wherever I'm needed," Pearson said. "I like being a versatile player."

Morris enjoys it too because it opens up his options at the position.

The nickel corner is a vital position on passing downs because that corner typically matches up with the receiver in the slot. That corner must be strong enough and quick enough to handle whatever receiver is in that slot. And it can be a running back, fullback, wide receiver or tight end. That nickel corner must be able to cover and tackle.

Those are the qualities of rookie free safety Tanard Jackson. The Bucs moved him into the starting lineup because of his coverage skills, and Jackson said Wednesday the coaches had not approached him about logging time at nickel corner. He played some nickel corner in the preseason.

Morris would rather not resort to using Jackson there.

"He was out there with the safeties a whole lot and I don't want to overload his package right now," Morris said. "I think he did a good job at safety this week. I want to keep him there and let his development grow. I don't want to mess him up right now."

So the choices appear to be Davis or Pearson. Morris would like Kelly back as soon as possible, but the prospect of giving two hungry players a chance to play seems to have stoked Morris this week.

"We're not sure what we're going to settle on right now," Morris said. "They're all practicing there and they're all looking good. I'm excited. Some of theses guys have been training for a while and they're ready to go."

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.

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