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Keeping up with Howard Jones? You know Bucs' move pays off

TAMPA — On the first defensive snap in his first NFL game, Howard Jones made a move inside and dropped the Jaguars quarterback for a sack.

In the second quarter of that same debut, the Bucs ran a stunt on another third-down play that gave the first-year defensive end a clear path up the middle to the quarterback for another sack.

Two sacks in an NFL debut is a rare feat, but the real move came a month earlier, when Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht lured Jones away from the Steelers to his practice squad by paying him a full rookie salary, about four times the normal practice-squad salary of $6,600 per week.

"I heard these guys really, really wanted me," said Jones, who had spent last season on the Steelers' practice squad and was among Pittsburgh's final roster cuts. "And I had interviewed with them at the combine, so I chose them."

Sunday's game at the Redskins is a homecoming of sorts for Jones, who went to high school in Woodbridge, Va., about a half-hour south of the nation's capital. The last time he played this close to home, Jones was a 185-pound wide receiver.

After not qualifying academically, he sat out a year, then redshirted his first season at Shepherd University, a Division II school in West Virginia. He gained enough muscle in those two years to be converted to defensive end, where he thrived with a combination of speed and added size.

Jones — "HoJo" to his Bucs teammates — finished his college career with ridiculous numbers: 34 sacks, 71 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and four blocked kicks.

He made a bigger splash at the NFL combine, showing off his freakish athleticism by running a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash — he was timed at 4.48 at his pro day — then a 40.5-inch vertical leap.

Last year, the Bucs had found a gem at defensive end in Jacquies Smith, who was claimed off waivers and quickly went from a third-down pass rusher to a starter, now with four sacks in five games this season.

Like Smith, the 25-year-old Jones doesn't have as much size as most defensive ends at 248 pounds, but he makes up for it with quickness and speed around the edge.

"Those are the guys we've had success with," coach Lovie Smith said. "I hear somebody say, 'The guy's fast, but he's a little undersized,' and I say, 'Hey, what's his name?' We're looking for those type guys, and he's an athlete, too."

Jones worked last season as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Pittsburgh, but he transitioned well in his return to being a defensive end in Tampa. When T.J. Fatinikun was lost to a season-ending injury, the Bucs didn't hesitate in promoting Jones to the active roster to give him a chance to shine.

"When he was out there on scout team, he always made the offensive tackles angry at him," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "You'd always see them getting upset with him because he goes so hard in practice. He was out there giving them a lot of trouble, so when he got in the game and did what he did, he wasn't afraid to make it happen with the lights turned on."

The Bucs are coming off a six-sack game against the Jaguars, and they expect to see more of Jones as a third-and-long specialist, trying to pressure the Redskins into a sack or, better yet, a turnover.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the coaching staff made a point to challenge Jones in the first month of the season, finding out if he was mentally prepared to put his athletic ability to good use on the football field.

"We put him through a lot — just a lot of drills, a lot of meetings, a lot of tests to see where he was from a mental standpoint," Frazier said. "Everything we threw at him he passed with flying colors. … The athletic ability was always there, we just wanted to see if he could get it down mentally, and he showed that he can. He should just get better and better with more playing time."

When Smith coached the 2006 Bears to the Super Bowl, he got 12 sacks from a situational pass rusher, an undersized rookie named Mark Anderson, who played only on third down. Again, Smith has found a rare end with receiver-caliber speed, and he's excited to see more of it as a defensive spark.

"I'm always talking about speed outside pass rushers," he said. "To be an outside pass rusher, you need juice. He has the juice.

Howard's on the record, officially: combine juice. He can run."

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

Keeping up with Howard Jones? You know Bucs' move pays off 10/22/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2015 9:28pm]
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