TAMPA — The real heroes of the Bucs' suddenly relevant season are the players who have been starring, not starting.
It's the cast of castaways that keeps getting longer. Doug Martin goes down. Jacquizz Rodgers carries the load at running back. Rodgers goes down. Hello, rookies Peyton Barber and Antone Smith. Smith was done after three games with a knee injury but contributed 124 yards on 16 touches.
Vincent Jackson is out. Cecil Shorts is up. Shorts is down, time for your closeup, Freddie Martino.
It's players such as DE DaVonte Lambert, C Ben Gottschalk and DBs Javien Elliott and Keith Tandy, a true pro who had the game-sealing interception last week at San Diego.
The NFL is a game of attrition won by teams that acquire and develop talent and that can survive adversity. It's a credit not just to Dirk Koetter's coaching but to the personnel side of the building, led by GM Jason Licht.
"I think we've done a good job of continuing to develop players, and that's how we believe you have to do it in this league because injuries are going to be there, year-in and year-out," Koetter said. "You just don't know when and where they're going to come, so you better develop your guys. And even guys that are here for a short time in training camp or in (organized team activities).
"Look how many guys we've brought back because of the time invested in them and what we think about them. That's all in our memory bank and then Jason of course has final control over that. …
"The players do deserve the majority of the credit," Koetter said, "but I think the coaches have done a really good job in that area as well."
TURNING IT AROUND BY CREATING TURNOVERS: It's remarkable what defensive coordinator Mike Smith and his staff have done the past four games. Through improved communication or more simple schemes, the Bucs are playing faster and smarter. Their 22 takeaways are tied for the fourth most in the NFL. They rank fifth in the NFL with 71 points off takeaways.
"From the time they got here in late January, those guys didn't come up for air very often, they were locked in there putting the packages together," Koetter said of his defensive coaching staff. "And when things weren't going well for us earlier in the year, those guys had to go in that room again and figure out how we were going to dig ourselves out. We say all the time, no one's coming to save us, we've got to save ourselves."
SAINTS HOLD THE KEY: In what is a weird quirk of the schedule, the Bucs play the Saints twice in the next three weeks, sandwiched around a Dec. 18 Sunday night game at Dallas. At 7-5 and in a virtual tie with the Falcons, the Bucs most likely need to sweep the series from New Orleans to have any chance to win the division. Playing the same team twice in 14 days happens just one other time in the entire NFL this year. The Broncos and Chargers played in Weeks 6 and 8.
"I don't know (how to approach it) and I'm not going to worry about it until the third week," Koetter said. "We play the Saints this week in a game that's real important for both sides, so I'm not a guy that worries about what's going to happen in three weeks. That's just not the way I look at it. Ask the question again the week of Christmas and I'll give you a better answer."