TAMPA — The plan was to spoon-feed rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster the defense a little bit at a time, let him digest it slowly and see what he would spit out.
Play him on first down, maybe in the goal-line package, but rarely in nickel passing situations. In fact, because he had so much information already swimming in his head, coach Raheem Morris did not want to add another voice by giving him the helmet transmitter.
That changed after Foster took over the play-calling duties for injured strongside linebacker Quincy Black in the second half of last week's 24-20 win at Minnesota. The result: 10 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a 6-foot-1, 241-pounder playing like a mayhem-causing mainstay who has been in the middle of the Bucs defense for years, not two weeks.
"I've got to go let him play," Morris said. "He's got to go out there and prove it.
"But last week was certainly a big indicator that he can. In the beginning, I was trying to take stuff off his plate to ease it for him; to slow it down for him. And he's embracing a bigger role than I even anticipated, and it's been beautiful."
Starting this afternoon against the Falcons, Foster is expected to be the Bucs' quarterback on defense who will remain on the field for every down and distance. He also will have the green dot on his helmet, which designates the player who has the transmitter to communicate with the coaches.
It's an enormous display of confidence in Foster, a third-round pick from Washington who because of the lockout did not have the benefit of an offseason to learn the terminology of the defense.
"It felt pretty natural," he said. "I've played linebacker my whole life. So getting the calls and making all the checks, we've got other linebackers out there, too. It's not just me. It's the whole defense. You've got Geno (Hayes), Sean (Jones), so they helped me out a lot. But it felt good to be out there in charge of the defense."
Regardless of Black's ankle injury, it's indisputable the defense performed better with Foster playing every down. After yielding 284 yards in the first half against Minnesota, Tampa Bay allowed only 114 the rest of the way. Adrian Peterson rushed for only 37 of his 120 yards after halftime.
The Bucs took a bit of a risk in the offseason by allowing linebacker Barrett Ruud to leave for the Titans via free agency. (He led Tampa Bay in tackles four straight seasons, and cornerback Ronde Barber has called him the most underappreciated teammate he has ever played with.)
Foster is a different player, a big body-thumper who knows how to put ballcarriers on the ground.
"He's big and athletic," Barber said. "He does not mind contact. He's definitely like a splash player, but he's picking it up. There's little stuff that he's not going to know, and the more reps he gets, obviously, the better he's going to get."
One play that did not get much attention last week illustrated Foster's intensity. Peterson made a jump cut in the hole and ran into Foster, who was engaged with Vikings tackle Charlie Johnson. Peterson gave Foster a shove to the face mask with his left hand. But Foster spun out of the block and made a shoestring tackle after a 19-yard gain, likely saving a touchdown.
"That was awesome," Morris said. "That is ultimate effort. Those types of plays don't show up on the stat sheet that great (middle linebackers) and great players make, but they absolutely win football games for you."
The challenge in playing Foster on every down today is resisting the urge to water down the defense for him.
"Do you want to try to make it simple for him so he can play fast and play like he played last week? No doubt about it," Morris said. "With the tough offenses we play and the guys that really know you … those things become hard to do. So we've got to make some changes and put more on his plate this week."
As Morris knows, for some players to grow, you've got to let them eat.
"Barrett Ruud was a great linebacker in Tampa for a long time, but we haven't skipped a beat with Mason coming in," Jones said. "He doesn't look like a rookie out there. He's like a seasoned vet getting the calls to everybody, and he's making plays each and every week.
"We just want him to continue to grow and to do what he's been doing. He's a very humble guy, but I can't wait to see what he becomes in this league."