TAMPA — Noah Spence was told his rookie season was probably over. In Week 4 against the Broncos, he dislocated his right shoulder and suffered a slight tear in his labrum. The options were to have surgery and wait until next year or endure the pain and wear a restrictive harness that would limit his range of motion but enable him to play.
Spence didn't seem ready to resume playing games. He seemed ready for a gurney. Beating 300-pound tackles off the edge in the NFL is tough. Try doing it with one arm. Other than that, he was good to go.
"This is weird to me, but it seems like when he hurt his shoulder and they said, 'You're going to miss the rest of the year or you've got to play with this harness,' he started playing the run better after he put the harness on," coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "And then the fact that we've had multiple injuries at defensive end and kind of had to throw him out there, because we were sort of planning on him as only in pass rush situations. But there was a stretch there where we didn't have many bodies, and he's gotten a lot better against the run. And then his confidence is high, and when you get a sack in the first series on Russell Wilson, it was on after that."
Lining up at right defensive end, Spence set the tone with his sack of Wilson on the first series of Sunday's 14-5 win over the Seahawks.
"Noah Spence was virtually unblockable," Koetter said.
So how do you explain the Bucs sacking the hardest quarterback to sack six times? Wilson was pressured on 27 of his 45 dropbacks, a career high. He was sacked on third down three times alone.
Spence finished with 11/2 sacks, giving him 51/2 on the season, second among rookies to Jacksonville's Yannick Ngakoue, who has six.
"We're being relentless," Spence said. "We're coming out every day at practice and trying to work every day like it's the game. I think it's starting to show."
Let's not get too far over our skis here. It's true, the Bucs had their best pass rush day in years. But it's also not coincidental that the Seahawks were starting three rookies on their offensive line, including center Joey Hunt. For the most part, the Seahawks try to pass protect with five linemen.
"They typically are not a big help protection team," Koetter said. "They just use their linemen and do a lot of empty (backfield formations), so a lot of times that offensive line doesn't have help and our d-line did a great job of putting pressure on him."
But Wilson is Houdini in the pocket. Spence not only had to be concerned with beating his man off the edge, he had to make sure he didn't get too far upfield or out of his rush lane or Wilson would be off to the races. Wilson wound up rushing for 80 yards on eight carries, but he wasn't really able to find open receivers on the move.
"That was one of our 'musts' we call it for the game, is having great pass rush lanes," Koetter said. "They worked with the guys, especially with Noah, all week that one of Wilson's moves is that spin move he uses to get out, and if Noah had been a little more aware he would've spun right into him a couple times. He had a possibility of getting a couple more sacks."
When the season started, the plan was to use Spence as a designated pass rusher. The Bucs feared that at 6-3, 251 pounds, he wouldn't hold up against the run. In one early game, he played only 12 snaps.
So how do you explain this? Ten days after its worst back-to-back performance ever, the Bucs defense ignited a three-game winning streak. It allowed 10, 17 and five points in the past three games. The defense has produced nine turnovers. And Spence, the second-round pick from Eastern Kentucky, has come alive with 21/2 sacks and a forced fumble the past three games.
A lot of credit goes to defensive coordinator Mike Smith for using the extended break following the Falcons loss on Thursday night to re-evaluate some things.
"Ever since the little mini-bye after the Thursday night game, Smitty and the defensive coaches cut back a little bit and simplified things," Koetter said. "We were doing a little bit less and try to let these guys play faster and they've responded."