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Bucs Beat: No rest for NFL’s weary cornerbacks

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd doesn’t profess to have had it easy during his 11-year playing career. How could he? As a four-time All Pro selection and two-time Pro Bowler with the San Diego Chargers, he was regularly tasked with covering the likes of Jerry Rice, Steve Largent and Tim Brown.

Still, playing cornerback then was nothing like playing cornerback now, Byrd says.

The fundamental demands of the job — always having to run backward while reacting to the maneuvers of the fastest players on the field – haven’t changed. But what has changed — and has changed dramatically, Byrd said — is the amount of time cornerbacks are asked to put their unique skill sets to work.

“Back in the day, we used to get some rest,” Byrd said. “There were a lot of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust plays and it wasn’t until third down that a team came out with three wide receivers and they didn’t play no-huddle all the time.

“But now you’re seeing teams spreading out on every down and using no-huddle all through the game, and so the (demands) on the cornerbacks are greater and, in theory at lest, they’re going to get tired a lot faster.’’

The philosophical changes taking place on the offensive side of the ball have naturally resulted in philosophical changes on defense. Not the least of those, Byrd said, is the increased use of the third or nickel corner.

“The nickel position has become a starting position now because the nature of the game is forcing that player to be on the field more than our (strongside) linebacker,’’ Byrd said. “They’re out there 65 to 70 percent of the time now.’’

That means the outside corners are on the field for nearly all of the defensive plays. And that, Byrd said, has greatly increased the value of an often overlooked staff member: the strength and conditioning coach.

“For the cornerbacks, there really has to be a premium now on conditioning, because you just don’t get the rest that some of the other players get,’’ Byrd said. “And you can’t use that as an excuse.

“There’s no excuse, no explanation for not being able to cover and pursue. No one wants to hear it. You’re tired? Don’t want to hear it. We have to get out there and get the job done.’’

No matter how hard it is.

LESSON LEARNED: Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer admits he defied convention by hiring head coach Lovie Smith before hiring general manager Jason Licht, but strongly believes he had little choice in the matter.

With rival teams also looking for new head coaches and Smith on the radar of several, there was a gold rush for his services. Glazer wasn’t going to lose that race.

“One thing I’ve learned in the 19 years I’ve been (involved with my family’s ownership of the Bucs) is that if you have a chance get a head coach like Lovie Smith, you do not wait around,’’ Glazer said.

“He’s a star in this league in terms of leadership and winning, and if you stall on that you lose that opportunity. So, lesson No. 1 is if you have someone that really stands above everyone else, you go and get him. And that’s what we did.’’

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES: Finishing near the bottom of your division usually leaves teams with an easier schedule than more successful division rivals the next season. That won’t be the case for Tampa Bay in 2014.

The Bucs were 4-12 last year, third in the NFC South, but have the league’s 19th most difficult schedule for 2014. The first-place Panthers and second-place Saints have the 22nd and 23rd toughest, respectively.

The 2014 strength of schedule rating is based on the 2013 winning percentage of all the clubs on a team’s 2014 schedule. For the Bucs, that figure comes to .484, compared to .473 for the Panthers and .469 for the Saints.

The fourth-place Falcons, meanwhile have an even tougher schedule than the Bucs. With two games each against Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa, the 2013 winning percentage of Atlanta’s 2014 opponents is .512, the 11th toughest schedule in 2014.

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Twitter: @RCummingsTBO

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