TAMPA — Noah Spence has been quiet in his first three NFL games. Even as other key Bucs defensive ends are sidelined, the rookie's playing time has dropped.
The second-round draft pick from Eastern Kentucky has a single tackle in three games — a sack in a 40-7 loss at Arizona in Week 2. But coaches and teammates made it clear they still expect big things from Spence.
"I think Noah is doing a great job," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Thursday. "Noah's wanting to do anything and everything that he can to help us win, and he's going to get an opportunity."
The Bucs lost pass-rusher Jacquies Smith to a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Starter Robert Ayers went out with an ankle injury in the next game at Arizona. Ayers likely will miss his second straight game Sunday against Denver.
And yet Spence has gone from 35 snaps in the season opener to 24 against Arizona to 12 Sunday against the Rams. Undrafted rookie DaVonte Lambert started at end against the Rams and played 51 of 65 snaps. Another undrafted rookie, Channing Ward, made his NFL debut and played 14 snaps.
Coach Dirk Koetter said the other rookie ends are "stouter" than Spence against an opponent's running game, and Los Angeles has one of the NFL's best young backs, Todd Gurley.
Spence, 22, is still being used in obvious passing downs. When those situations don't come up, Spence has been used sparingly.
"It's no surprise to me," Spence said. "I'm still learning, trying to get better and everything, trying to learn more about the run game, trying to develop that aspect of my game."
Spence's production is comparable to other rookie pass-rushers drafted near him at No. 39 overall. Kevin Dodd, drafted six spots earlier by the Titans, has one sack and three total tackles. Kamalei Correa, taken three spots later at No. 42 by the Ravens, has one tackle and no sacks.
When the Bucs drafted Spence, general manager Jason Licht said he thought Spence could be a three-down defensive end, able to rusher the passer and stop the run.
"I'm happy with where he's at," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He's growing every week. He can do both. He's more established as a pass-rusher. He's getting better at stopping the run. He's so used to just flying up the field and running (around) whatever gets in his way.
"People get a lot of glory for rushing the passer, but if you've got a guy who can actually play the run as well, it makes you that much better."
Spence could have an increased role against Denver, especially if the Bucs' defense sets up third-and-long scenarios in which he can make his biggest impact.
If he can get to quarterback Trevor Siemian, it wouldn't be the first time. Spence shared a sack of Siemian when he was at Ohio State and Siemian at Northwestern in 2013.
Siemian is eager to show what he can do against the defending Super Bowl champions.
"I'm excited every week," Spence said. "You're playing in the NFL. It's good every day."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.