Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - BY GREG AUMAN Times Staff Writer Con­tact Greg Auman at gau­man@tam­pabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Fol­low @gre­gau­man.

The Bucs de­fense will be a bit health­ier Sun­day against the Gi­ants, but fac­ing Eli Man­ning, Odell Beck­ham & Co. gives it an ur­gency to play at a much higher level in front of a home crowd.

TAMPA — When you last saw the Bucs’ de­fense, it was de­pleted and strug­gling, giv­ing up 369 yards and three touch­downs — to Tampa Bay neme­sis Case Keenum — in a hum­bling 34-17 loss to the Vik­ings.

It will be a bit health­ier Sun­day against the Gi­ants, and get­ting back Pro Bowl cor­ner­back Brent Grimes likely will be a ma­jor boost. But fac­ing the likes of Eli Man­ning and Odell Beck­ham, there’s an ur­gency to play at a much higher level in front of the home crowd.

“We didn’t per­form at the level that we needed to (against the Vik­ings). That’s ob­vi­ous in terms of ex­plo­sive plays,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Smith said. “When you give up close to 190 yards in four plays, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter what hap­pens the rest of the game. … You just can’t do that. We did it, and we own it from the top down. We made the cor­rec­tions, and we move on.”

They try to move on against Man­ning, who is 5-0 against the Bucs and threw for 510 yards against them in a win in 2012. He hasn’t been sacked the past three times he has faced the Bucs and has three pro­duc­tive re­ceivers in Beck­ham, vet­eran Bran­don Mar­shall and sec­ond-year pro Ster­ling Shep­ard.

“We’ve got to make plays. Last week we didn’t make any plays, sim­ple as that,” said cor­ner­back Ver­non Har­g­reaves, who gave up 126 yards and a touch­down on seven catches against the Vik­ings.

The Bucs’ de­fense has one sack in 78 pass at­tempts this sea­son. The team’s bench­mark is one for ev­ery 14 pass at­tempts.

Even when the de­fense has played well and set up third-and-long sit­u­a­tions, op­po­nents have been able to con­vert. Chicago’s Mike Glen­non con­verted on third and 11 and third and 9 in the opener. Keenum con­verted on third and 12.

“Third down and long is prob­a­bly the most ir­ri­tat­ing,” Smith said. “You should win about 90 per­cent of the third down and 10-pluses, and we’ve had con­ver­sions … three times thus far in the sea­son. It is a con­cern.”

Man­ning also has a his­tory of suc­cess against Smith’s teams. He threw for 384 and three touch­downs against Smith’s Fal­cons in 2009, and when At­lanta made the play­offs in 2011, Man­ning threw for 277 and three scores in elim­i­nat­ing the Fal­cons 24-2.

Grimes and Man­ning go way back. He in­ter­cepted a Man­ning pass in 2009 while with the Fal­cons. He gave up a 45-yard pass to Beck­ham in 2015 when the Gi­ants beat the Dol­phins.

Ryan Smith, who got his first start in place of Grimes against the Vik­ings, strug­gled in cov­er­age, giv­ing up two touch­down passes, in­clud­ing a 59yarder.

“I know I did wrong,” said Smith, who may re­turn to his spe­cial-teams role. “I’m def­i­nitely go­ing to play bet­ter. That won’t hap­pen again. Just learn from my mis­takes. It’s bet­ter to go through it so you know where you messed up so it won’t hap­pen again.”

Since com­ing into the league in 2014, Beck­ham has 20 catches of 40 yards or longer; only the Bucs’ DeSean Jack­son, with 22, has more. Those two tie for the NFL ca­reer lead among ac­tive play­ers with 11 touch­downs of 40-plus yards, and whether it’s Har­g­reaves or Grimes lin­ing up against Beck­ham on Sun­day, there’s a healthy re­spect for how dan­ger­ous he is.

“He’s prob­a­bly the best I’ve ever seen,” Har­g­reaves said of Beck­ham, whom he first faced as a Ga­tors fresh­man when Beck­ham was at LSU. “(Raiders star Amari Cooper) is my guy, but them two, it don’t get any bet­ter. … What a chal­lenge. What an op­por­tu­nity. This is what you want, and what you should want as a cor­ner. I’m ex­cited.”


T.J. Ward, wrap­ping up Dalvin Cook, and the Bucs’ se­condary strug­gled against the Vik­ings. TV/ra­dio:

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