TAMPA — Jonathan Casillas says he prepares the same way each week, whether he's actually starting or not. But Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said he has noticed a spark in the fifth-year pro since he stepped in as the primary strongside linebacker.
"Sometimes, when you think you're only playing 10 or 20 snaps in a certain role, you don't have that kind of focus," Sheridan said. "But when you tell a guy, 'You're it. You are the guy. There isn't anybody else who's going to play that role,' he really epitomized what you'd hope a guy would do. He completely got wound up about it, was totally riveted the whole week."
Casillas joined the team in the offseason after four years with the Saints, including a Super Bowl win as an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin in 2009. He started eight games for New Orleans and just one last season. But among the past four games in Tampa, he has started three while coming in on the second play Monday.
In that time, playing time has shifted from Dekoda Watson, 25, to the 26-year-old Casillas, who saw just 36 snaps during the Bucs' 0-5 start.
Since then, he has been in on 89 plays. Watson has played just 20 while limited by a shoulder injury and focused more on special teams. Casillas has nine tackles in those games, solidifying a larger role for the rest of the season.
"I'm excited to be out there," said Casillas, who played fewer than 10 snaps in four straight games early in the season. "I love this game, and being out there on the defense is definitely bringing a smile to my face. I'm contributing a lot and helping our defense as well. It was me and Dekoda helping each other out. Now it's my job, so I take the ownership by myself. We preach preparation around here, so I'm trying to be as prepared as possible."
Casillas said he was unsure as a free agent what the chemistry would be like in Tampa Bay after having a great relationship with his fellow linebackers in New Orleans. But he was quickly embraced, and veteran Adam Hayward said his reputation in the NFC South carried a lot of weight before he even stepped into the Bucs' locker room.
"He didn't really have to prove anything. The guy's won a Super Bowl," Hayward said. "He did well in New Orleans. He's a good player: fast, smart, physical. And he's taken care of the (strongside) position."
Watson's injury created an opening for Casillas, and the coaches are pleased with how he has responded, both on game day and in setting an example during the week.
"However he has gotten to that role, he has it now, and he has really embraced it," Sheridan said. "I thought he had a great practice week last week, and I told him that. Just really into the meetings, digested the game plan, really did a great job at practice, was totally wired in. And I think you'll see him take off now that he's been tagged as the starter at that position."
Coach Greg Schiano has fielded much the same defensive lineup this season — 10 defensive players have started seven or more games — but he said the shift to Casillas in the past month has been positive.
"I think a lot of it was the opportunity that Casillas got when Watson wasn't 100 percent," Schiano said. "He did a good job when he got the chance, so he got more. You earn your piece of the pie around here, and he deserved more."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.