TAMPA — Chris Conte has changed for the better, in many ways.
That much was clear Sunday as the Chiefs were at the Bucs 6-yard line, close to taking the lead in the fourth quarter. Conte intercepted an Alex Smith pass in the end zone, and the safety returned it to his own 48, setting up a touchdown in Tampa Bay's 19-17 win.
"We have to say that was the game-changing play of the football game," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "I think we see signs here and there of the type of defense that we can be."
A week earlier, Conte grabbed a Jay Cutler pass and returned it 20 yards for his first career interception return for a touchdown and the first points in a 36-10 win over the Bears.
Conte, 27, is an unrestricted free agent next year, having played both his seasons in Tampa on modest one-year contracts. He's on pace for a career-high 93 tackles. His next interception will match a career high of three.
He's also the first to admit his play wasn't good enough early this season.
"It was a rough start to the year," he said. "I don't think I really played the way I wanted to be playing, the way I know I could play. To be able to help my team, that's all I've been wanting to do and trying to do. Hopefully I can continue that and do everything I can to keep that going."
Conte was a popular target for fan criticism, especially on Twitter, as had been the case late in his time with the Bears. He once embraced it as motivation but now dismisses it.
"You just can't listen to idiots," he said Wednesday. "There's a lot of idiots out there. You just can't listen to them. It seems that's all Twitter is. It's just a bunch of idiots. You can listen to it, or you cannot. You just have to take it for what it is: It's people who don't know what they're talking about."
Conte said his turnaround on the field came shortly after "a big moment for me."
Coach Dirk Koetter sent him a text message and put him in touch with Jim Brogan, a former NBA player who is a motivational speaker.
"It really was helpful for me, just getting things straight and going from there, getting some confidence," Conte said.
First-year Bucs defensive backs coach Jon Hoke reunited with Conte this season, having worked with him for four years as part of Lovie Smith's staff in Chicago. He remembers the heat Conte — a 2011 third-round pick out of Cal — took. Hoke sees a different safety.
"He's handled it better," Hoke said. "Chicago can be a tough town. He caught his fair share (of criticism), and we weren't playing good football at the time, so it goes with the territory. Especially up there, when you're a defensive football city, they (set the bar high). ... He's kept his eyes forward and has done a good job of handling the ups and downs."
Conte said he has had more positive interaction with fans in the past two weeks — "There are great people. They're just not on Twitter," he said — and his current attitude reflects a new filter.
"You can use (criticism) as motivation or ignore it, or whatever you want to do with it," he said. "At times, I've let it affect me in the past. I've made a choice to have it affect me in a positive way. Either do that or ignore it."
The Bucs have four wins — and six takeways — in their past six games. The challenge for Conte and the defense is to keep that up.
"Confidence is contagious," Hoke said. "We all want it because we're all human and we all have doubt at times. You start making plays and you feel like things are going well and you have your eyes in the right spot, you feel more confident as you go."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.