Deone Bucannon is fast enough to have played safety at Washington State and physical enough to have shifted to inside linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals.
Along the way, he has studied another player with similar physical gifts: Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.
“He’s really in the box the same way,” Bucannon said this week as the Cardinals prepared for their Sunday game against the Seahawks. “He gets back, and he gets at half field, middle field, he gets in the box. He does it all. … As far as a big safety that goes in the box and punishes linemen, take on pulling guards and always sticking his head in the fire and being a physical player, definitely Kam Chancellor is one of the guys I always watch.”
Before this season, the two worked out together.
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“Yeah, I trained with him during the offseason this last season,” Bucannon said. “I … just tried to get all the tidbits I can out of him.”
The second-year pro seems to be learning fast. Bucannon leads the Cardinals with 103 tackles, including three sacks. He has forced three fumbles and has one interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
The pick-six came Dec. 20 against the Philadelphia Eagles and helped earn Bucannon his first NFC defensive player of the week award.
“He’s been physical,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’s been similar to Kam in that respect. Obviously, it’s difficult to emulate what Kam does, but he’s incredibly aggressive and he gets the job done.”
As a senior at WSU, Bucannon led the Cougars in tackles and interceptions. He was a first-team All-American and a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, honoring the nation’s top defensive back.
“I know him as a downhill player,” said Seahawks rookie receiver Kevin Smith, a former Washington Husky who remembers Bucannon from Apple Cups. “Tries to be a hard-hit safety. (He’s like Chancellor) probably the size-wise, and the athletic ability to move and be fast — faster than linebackers, really.”
Arizona selected Bucannon with the 27nd overall pick of the 2014 draft. He’s listed as a safety on the Cardinals’ roster. But he has played inside linebacker — or really more of an every-down hybrid role — as coach Bruce Arians has tried to fit his 11 best defensive players on the field together.
“A lot of people don’t know that I haven’t really played any safety in the league yet,” Bucannon said this week. “My rookie year, I was in the box as well — the nine games that I started last year. I’ve been playing linebacker.”
He credits Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter and inside linebacker coach Larry Foote with easing his transition.
“You have a lot less time to diagnose plays,” Bucannon said. “You’ve got 3 to 5 yards as opposed to at the safety position you have 10 to 15 yards. At linebacker, it happens a lot faster. The biggest thing really is just understanding gap assignments … and how pulling guards affect your gaps.”
This season has marked a breakthrough not only for Bucannon, but for his team. When the Cardinals conclude the regular season at home this weekend, they already will have the NFC West championship in their pocket and will be playing for a chance at the top seed in the conference, depending on the result of the Tampa Bay-Carolina game, which will play out at the same time.
“Everything’s going right,” Bucannon said. “But there is going to be a time when something goes wrong. We’re going to have to respond. … We’re going to respond in a great way because of the relationship we have on this team with each other. … We keep that mentality and know the sky is the limit for us.”
There is another way that this has been a good season for Bucannon, who also noticed that a lot went right with his alma mater, which concluded a 9-4 season with a 20-14 win over Miami last weekend in the Sun Bowl.
“(WSU coach Mike Leach) has done a fantastic job, from what we were and how far we’ve come,” he said. “… Honestly, it’s a whole different culture change out there, and I’m looking forward to watching them continue their success in the future.”