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Kwon Alexander: The voices driving the engine powering Tampa Bay's defense

Kwon Alexander hears voices. One is decisive and comes from defensive coordinator Mike Smith as the upcoming play is transmitted to his helmet receiver. That's when he turns and repeats the instructions to his teammates. Then he peers sideline to sideline to dissect the opponent.

When the Bucs were struggling, the lack of communication on defense was identified as a major cause of their problem.

"It starts with him getting the call," safety Keith Tandy said. "At the beginning of the year, Kwon wasn't getting the call on time, so we've added some signals to help out with that.

"It's been key in our turnaround. It started in the meetings. In the meetings we're talking more and it carried into practice and then into the games. Everybody is playing more confident."

Nobody is playing better than Alexander, the 22-year-old middle linebacker from LSU.

His intensity was on full display in Sunday's 26-20 loss at Dallas. Play after play, he exploded from his stance, navigated the tangled mass of bodies and rooted out the ball carrier. His 21 tackles and forced fumble by tight end Jason Witten at the Cowboys 45 put the Bucs in position to win.

Alexander's 97 solo tackles lead the NFL. Throw in three sacks, seven quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception he returned for a touchdown.

"I think you're seeing a player that's really coming into his own," Smith said.

"He's a very emotional player, he plays with a lot of passion and runs extremely well. I think that's probably his best trait, is his ability to run."

Alexander hears another voice in his head, from the time he wakes up until he closes his eyes at night. This one he responds to, holding what might seem like a one-way conversation if you witnessed it.

It's the voice of Lil' Brod, short for Broderick.

Broderick Taylor was weeks from his 18th birthday, at a house party down the street from the family home in Anniston, Ala., on a Friday last season before the Bucs were to play 90 minutes away at Atlanta. Brod got into an altercation with another man, who took out a gun and shot him in the chest.

Alexander, the oldest of four children, was in the team hotel when his mother, Peaches, called to tell him Lil' Brod had been shot. She called back with two words that still haunt him. "He's gone."

Alexander cried all night and hadn't slept when he took the field at the Georgia Dome. He finished with 11 tackles and an interception and ran down Julio Jones from behind, ripping the football out of his hands.

Said Alexander: "I didn't do nothing. He did it all."

The next week at Brod's memorial service, Alexander took his game jersey, the football he intercepted, his gloves and cleats and put it all in his brother's casket. When the Bucs opened this season in Atlanta, his family made the trip. Playing for Brod, Alexander had 17 tackles in a 31-24 win.

Alexander spent much of the offseason in pre-dawn chalk talk meetings with Smith to learn the nuances of the new defense. That habit affirmed the Bucs' decision from a year ago. They trusted the helmet transmitter to a rookie taken in the fourth round.

"I feel like I'm just getting wiser? Can I say wiser?" Alexander said. "I know a lot more now. It's really slowing down to me. At the beginning of the season, I was kind of moving too fast, and now it's all slowing down for me and I'm just keeping it at that pace.

"My eyes, instinct and film study. That's what I'm trusting and I'm going to keep trusting them."

Tandy says the Bucs' defense changed the minute Alexander stepped into the huddle as a rookie.

"I remember last year one game I came in and tried to punch the ball out, and I hit the tight end and kind of fell back," Tandy said. "He started cussing me out during the game for not taking him down. It definitely changed the whole attitude."

A year ago, Alexander was suspended for the final four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Bucs lost all four games.

Dirk Koetter says it was no coincidence.

"From my viewpoint, that hurt our team a lot, when we didn't have Kwon, the last four (games) last year," said Koetter, then the offensive coordinator, now the Bucs' head coach. "And I think Kwon has taken it upon himself, he's wanted to be out front and be the leader of our defense, he's put the time in.

"A lot of guys that go down that road, they'll start down that road and find out there's a lot of hard work and they'll cool off. He's been persistent and stuck with it."

Funny thing about communication, it has to flow both ways. Messages are sent. Received. Sometimes they arrive through a transmitter in the din of a sold-out football stadium. Sometimes, they crack the silence of your heart.

"He motivates me to get up," Alexander said of Lil' Brod. "I talk to God and I talk to him and I'm energized and ready to be great for the day and be better.

"He's always with me. He's with me right now. I can feel him all the time. I'm getting chills right now."

Kwon Alexander: The voices driving the engine powering Tampa Bay's defense 12/23/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2016 7:41pm]
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