TAMPA — At 5 feet 10 and a cheeseburger over 200 pounds, Keith Tandy still struggles to look the part of a safety. But he has had no trouble playing like one.
The second-year cornerback from West Virginia was converted in the offseason and is tied with Bucs linebacker Lavonte David for the team lead with three interceptions despite limited playing time.
"I used to see him once a year. He intercepted us twice," said Bucs coach Greg Schiano, whose former Rutgers team was a Big East rival with the Mountaineers. "We thought that he could be a really good sub safety because he's got good ball skills, coverage skills.
"We could bring him down as a cover guy. Where he's played beyond what we expected is when he got called to be a base safety as well — physical, stick his face in there."
Tandy, 24, is among some of the young faces who have helped the Bucs lead the NFL with 17 interceptions. It's not by accident. If Tampa Bay has done anything right this season, it rebuilt a pass defense that was historically bad and worst in the league a year ago.
The Bucs went on a shopping spree in the offseason by signing All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson and swinging the trade for Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. They also used a second-round pick — the top remaining pick — on Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.
However, the Bucs have spread the wealth. Nine players have combined for those interceptions, including two each by Revis, Banks, safety Mark Barron and linebacker Mason Foster.
"We went out and got some guys that were truly excellent players and really good leaders," Schiano said. "That's what you're referring to as the trickle-down effect on the rest of the room. Like anything, when you bring in an elite player into a position room, it raises the level of the room.
"You guys remember seeing it in training camp with Dashon leading the guys, running extra sprints, fitting them up and teaching them man coverage and techniques and stuff. To me, that's what team is. That's what football is; when you have that selfless giving of information. I go back to training camp. It's hot. You could get inside, get in the tub and eat your lunch, or you could stay out there and help a rookie who may not make the football team. That, to me, is the kind of guys that they are."
The confounding thing for the Bucs is they are tied for fourth in the league in turnover margin at plus-10, but it hasn't shown up in the win/loss record. In each of the past eight years, every team that led the league in interceptions won at least 10 games. Already, the Bucs are on course to be the only team in the past nine seasons to be at least plus-10 and have a losing record.
Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said the team's defensive line and its pressure on the quarterback is responsible for many of the interceptions.
"I think they've been valuable," Sheridan said. "We need them to be. This is a passing league."
Revis, who says he fights boredom because quarterbacks rarely look his way, was unaware the Bucs had the most interceptions in the league.
"We've been having a lot of guys injured or banged up a lot, and guys have been stepping up," Revis said. "That's a great accomplishment, but I think we've played up and down this year. I've been trying to find ways to be consistent. We're still trying to click as a group, and hopefully, we'll be together for a bunch of years because we've been playing great at times. But we need to be better at times."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]