National Football League
Bucs' beat-up defense to lean on promising rookies even more down the stretch
National Football League

Bucs' beat-up defense to lean on promising rookies even more down the stretch

Published Nov. 22, 2023 4:02 p.m. ET

The Bucs defense, pulling a bit of a Benjamin Button, is getting younger and younger as the season unfolds.

Already getting impact plays from rookies Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby up front and Christian Izien at nickel, Tampa Bay could have five rookies or more pressed into key roles on defense as the team travels to face the Colts in a crucial game Sunday.

"We all go through the week always preparing as if we're going to be the next to go in," said safety Kaevon Merriweather, an undrafted rookie from Iowa who made his first NFL start Sunday and had four tackles in the loss to San Francisco. "Paying attention to detail, always being prepared and always knowing your number can be called at any point, we all do a good job and I think it showed on Sunday when we had to step in for such a big game."

The Bucs have injury concerns with four of their top players on defense, mainstays from their Super Bowl season three years ago. Corners Carlton Davis (hip) and Jamel Dean (foot) left last week's game against the 49ers and didn't return, as did linebacker Lavonte David (hip). Davis might be OK to play against the Colts, but on Wednesday, Bucs coach Todd Bowles said if they had a game that day, Dean and David would not play, nor would linebacker Devin White, who has been slowed by a foot injury.


When those stars were sidelined Sunday against the 49ers, rookies stepped in. Merriweather had started in place of an injured Ryan Neal and played the first 34 defensive snaps of his career, linebacker SirVocea Dennis got his first real playing time with two tackles filling in for David, and corner Josh Hayes had three tackles in 15 snaps in his defensive debut.

"It wasn't too big for them," co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote said Wednesday. "I was impressed with the way they played. They looked mature. It wasn't like a fish out of water, as a lot of rookies look. This time of year, injuries are going to be picking up throughout the league, and depth is going to have to get us where we need to be."

Tampa Bay (4-6) is only one game out of first place in the NFC South, but the Bucs need to change the momentum of their season with five losses in six games since their Week 5 bye. The rest of their schedule features all winnable games, but doing so with a rookie-loaded defense could make it more of a challenge.

"I thought they handled it well," said safety Antoine Winfield, the lone healthy starter left in the secondary when Sunday's game ended. "That's part of the game — injuries happen, people go down. It's next man up. They came in, they were excited to play and I thought they played well."

The Bucs had 13 rookies on their initial 53-man roster, so they've had strong contributions from their youngest players all season, especially on defense. Kancey, the team's first-round pick out of Pittsburgh, was limited early this year by a calf injury but has two sacks and six tackles for loss in his seven games. Diaby, a third-rounder from Louisville, has caught fire in recent weeks. He's tied for second among all NFL rookies with four sacks and seven tackles for loss, both one off the league's rookie lead. Izien, an undrafted rookie from Rutgers, has 34 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

Diaby had two sacks in Sunday's loss and is making a strong case to overtake 2021 first-rounder pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka for the starting role opposite Shaq Barrett. Diaby is a muscular 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, and when asked if he could compare the rookie's body type to anyone, Bowles' answer was "Optimus Prime."

Can a rookie-led defense transform the Bucs from an inconsistent unit to something that can help Tampa Bay chase a third straight division title? That group also includes a third undrafted rookie in outside linebacker Markees Watts, who has barely played but had a quarterback hit to set up a Winfield interception in the team's win over the Titans two weeks ago. Another part of that equation could be Dennis, a fourth-round pick from Pittsburgh who has leaned on advice he gets daily from David: Trust yourself.

"Once you get your feet wet, it's all downhill," Dennis said of his comfort level after playing on defense Sunday. "It's really fun just to play football."

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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