TAMPA — Akeem Spence's timing couldn't be better.
The third-year Bucs defensive tackle, sidelined since having lower back surgery in July, made his season debut off the bench in Sunday's loss at Washington.
This weekend, with starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald limited by a pectoral muscle injury and the Bucs facing the NFL's leading rusher, Atlanta's Devonta Freeman, Spence could be called on for a much larger role.
"This week is a big week for me, stepping into a starting role," Spence said Thursday. "I have to pick up where I left off and keep it going. I know my preparation has to be that much more than weeks before."
Defensive tackle has quickly gone from one of the Bucs' deepest positions to one fortunate to have Spence, 23, back. McDonald's injury came Sunday after the Bucs were already without backup Tony McDaniel, who remains sidelined by a groin injury. That leaves Pro Bowl player Gerald McCoy, Spence and backup Henry Melton as the only defensive tackles, though starting end Will Gholston could help inside if necessary.
In the summer, Spence's future was uncertain after he injured his back in a weightlifting accident. He initially thought the injury was minor until he started having pain and tingling in his legs. He had surgery July 2. He didn't return to practice until last week after he was activated from the physically unable to perform list.
"When you miss this much time with a serious back injury like that, there is a concern, especially at the position," coach Lovie Smith said. "(We) talked about double teams. (He's) going to get double teamed every time, but he's healthy, ready to go, and he's given us good reps when he's been healthy. It's good to get him a few (Sunday), and he'll get more this week."
The Bucs had a three-week window in which to activate Spence to the roster, but that decision was accelerated by McDaniel's injury. Having made it through a week of practice without a setback, Spence played 15 snaps as a backup against the Redskins, logging a single quarterback hit.
"It felt great, just getting back out there with my teammates. Just to move around and get some contact, my back felt great," the 6-foot-1, 307-pound former Illinois star said.
If the Bucs don't have McDonald at all against the Falcons, they'll be without their top run-stopper on the defensive line. His 19 lead tackles on running plays are the most on the team, ahead of linebacker Lavonte David, so Spence will be challenged to lead the effort against Freeman, who leads the NFL with 621 rushing yards.
Spence is no slouch against the run. He started 14 games as a rookie in 2013 and had 29 tackles. He was moved into a backup role for most of last season but still finished with more tackles — 37 (two more than McCoy) — along with three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Recovering from a back injury requires caution, and Spence said being on the physically unable to perform list took away any pressure he might have put on himself to try to get back sooner than he was ready.
"It being your back, you want to take it careful, and that's what we did," Spence said. "The medical staff, the GM (Jason Licht) and coach, I was glad they took care of me like that. It seems like I came back at the right time."
The Bucs have just started a run of 11 straight games to close the year, and Spence's injury saved him from the grind of the first month of the season, which Smith said should help him in his return.
"He was rested and a fresh body," Smith said of Spence's return. "As a nose guard, that's a big thing this time of the season.
"(Spence) has played good football for us, so to have a player to fall back on like that meant a lot to us. There's a reason why he's one of our guys, and we were waiting for him to be able to be active, and we got him out there right away. He'll play better this coming week than he did this past."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.