TAMPA — For a month or so, it looked like Sterling Moore might be the odd man out in the Bucs' ever-changing search to find the best combination in their defensive secondary.
Once the starting nickel defensive back, Moore found himself a seldom-used backup cornerback, logging a total of 16 snaps on defense with one tackle in a three-game stretch against the Jaguars, Redskins and Falcons.
"It was definitely hard, especially knowing what I can do when I'm on the field," Moore said. "I think any guy in the secondary wants to be on the field. It was tough, to be honest with you. … When my time came, I wanted to capitalize on that."
Then the Bucs tried one more look, benching their starters and installing Moore and rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah as starters. On the first play against the Giants on Nov. 8, Moore intercepted an Eli Manning pass, and he hasn't had a snap off in two games since, becoming the answer to a problem that had haunted the Bucs for two months.
"You can't discount the play of our corners," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Thursday. "That makes all the difference in the world in our league when you have to match up with some of these really good receivers. It's a combination of things, but I would point to our secondary as much as anything."
Moore politely declined to talk to reporters last week as the Bucs prepared to play a Cowboys team that had him as its primary nickel defensive back last year. With Moore a restricted free agent after the season, the Cowboys needed only to tender him a one-year, $1.5 million contract to keep him, but they decided to pass, which made him a free agent.
Moore signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay, essentially for the same money the Cowboys declined to offer him. So there was no shortage of motivation Sunday as he faced his old team.
"I was definitely motivated," Moore, 25, said. "There was definitely a familiarity with what they do on offense and the guys they have. I didn't put too much pressure on myself and overthink what they do. I knew they weren't going to go out of their way to change their game plan."
The Bucs put Moore on standout receiver Dez Bryant, even "traveling" him from one side of the field to the other to stick with Bryant at times. Bryant had 12 passes thrown his way but caught only five for 45 yards and no touchdowns, a big validation for Moore's status as a starter.
"I know (Bryant's) routes that make him comfortable. I know his releases," Moore said. "But he's still a big-time receiver, capable of making big-time catches even when you're in good position."
The Bucs treat their outside cornerbacks and nickels (or slot corners) as distinct positions that have separate coaches, unlike most teams. The nickel must be versatile, able to drop in pass coverage, blitz the quarterback and help in support against the run game.
Moore has the flexibility to play both positions. He opened training camp at corner before settling in at nickel at the start of the season.
Coach Lovie Smith said Moore is an intelligent player.
"You have to have a little bit of knowledge to be able to (play both positions)," Smith said. "We like him at the cornerback position, playing the ball. He has good hands. … Whether it's man coverage, zone coverage, he's done a pretty good job with it."
Moore's Bucs contract is a "show me" deal that could set him up for free agency if he plays well. If he continues as a starter, the Bucs will have a few months before free agency starts to try to work out an extension.
The way he handled a difficult situation of changing roles in the first half of the season was noticed by his coaches.
"He's been patient," Frazier said. "He's been waiting for an opportunity, and he has taken advantage of it to his credit, as opposed to moping and having a bad attitude. When his number got called, he has played well, so hopefully he can continue."
The Bucs' confidence in their current corners allowed them to blitz more in Sunday's win against Dallas, and the defense gets another test against Philadelphia's passing game on the road Sunday.
Moore's confidence didn't waver on the bench, and it's still strong as he solidifies himself as a starting cornerback.
"I don't want to be labeled as just a nickel. I know I can play inside, I know I can play outside, and I know I can do them well," Moore said. "It was just about waiting for my opportunity."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.