TAMPA — To Falcons coach Mike Smith, what stands out about Bucs safety Mark Barron is how extremely physical he is.
"He's a guy that can run and hit," Smith said. "And when he hits you, you know it."
But as much as Barron, 23, has been a heavy hitter since his days at Alabama, he has learned to pick his spots.
"I used to try to kill everybody," Barron said. "You can't do that. You miss a lot of tackles like that. You make sure you take those opportunities at the right time."
It's part of the maturation process for Barron, who is blossoming in his second season, his versatility a big boost for the Bucs. Barron is the team's second-leading tackler (25) with as many uses as a Swiss Army Knife.
He'll cover running backs in the flat, receivers on deep routes or tight ends over the middle. He'll serve as a linebacker in dime packages, the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder stuffing the run and blitzing the quarterback, having racked up a sack along with an interception in five games.
"He could be a dominant player," defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "I think he senses that, and he's enjoying that. And I think he really looks forward to Sundays. He's enjoying himself because he can play, and he knows it."
Barron, the seventh overall pick in 2012, said he's more comfortable and confident this year. He believes he has improved most in eye discipline in pass coverage with "everything slowing down so it's easier for me to see what I need to see."
Barron did admit there was a breakdown last week when Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson split him and fellow safety Dashon Goldson for a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"The play-action kind of messed everybody up," Barron said. "I had a guy running up on me free. So I was trying to play closer to him. Then I had a guy coming back over the other side, so I was trying to play both of them. It's hard to do."
Barron will have another tough task Sunday with Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"I think he's coming into his own as a player," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said, "and playing at a really high level."
The Bucs often move Barron closer to the line of scrimmage when they use six defensive backs, an alignment that plays to his strengths. He enjoys it because he feels more involved with everything, using his physicality and instincts in stopping the run. In four-receiver sets, Barron is a rare safety who can line up against a receiver and is a "much better deep defender than people give him credit for," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said.
"I think when you're big and physical, they say, "Well, you can't play the deep ball,' " Schiano said. "He's gifted that way. Mark's got all the makings to be an elite guy."
Barron isn't a finished product. He says he has learned a lot from Goldson, who has guided him as Ronde Barber did last year. But after rookie growing pains, Barron is starting to look a lot like the explosive, impact player the team envisioned.
"From the time the (2012) season ended, he's been driven, focused," safeties coach Jeff Hafley said. "You can see it in his eyes. You can see it in the meeting room. He's playing confident. He's playing physical. He's covering well, and he's really been a leader out there. He's got a lot on his plate, mentally, and he's done an awesome job with it — playing down in the box, playing deep, covering backs, covering receivers.
"And the thing is there's still room for improvement, which is what's really exciting. He's playing good, and he knows he'll be playing better."