TAMPA — Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward are quite different in terms of experience and skills at linebacker.
But the Bucs believe that together, in a rotation on the strong side to fill the absence of injured starter Quincy Black, they're the perfect pair.
"We're like 'shake and bake,' baby," Watson said, smiling. "That's what we do. They trust him, and they trust me, so it's a beautiful thing."
By using the more seasoned Hayward on first and second downs, the Bucs get a physical presence and savvy. And Watson, a rookie out of Florida State, has speed and pass-rushing ability to give opponents another look.
"It's kind of like having Quincy out there all over again," Hayward said. "You've got the big run-stopper and the mobile and fast guy."
And by splitting time, Hayward and Watson can continue their roles on special teams.
Black, who started 10 games, was put on injured reserve this week with a broken forearm.
Linebackers coach Joe Baker said Hayward's versatility (being able to play all three linebacker spots) and experience (56 career games) make the Bucs comfortable on early downs.
"It's about his physical demeanor and how (Hayward) attacks blocks and how he attacks people," coach Raheem Morris said. "He's one of those guys that really brings a certain violence to the game we love. It's all legal violence, and it's player-safety violence. … He has a switch when he's on the football field; he plays at a different speed."
It took Watson, a seventh-round draft pick, a little while to get up to speed. Watson said he has gone through a "complete transition" since training camp.
"Over the summer I didn't know what the heck was going on," Watson said. "It was kind of nerve-wracking. I was seeing people getting cut every day. So I'm coming in, like, 'Okay, Dekoda, you can't mess up.' "
Watson, 22, said he took a breath and some advice from fellow former Seminole and Bucs starting linebacker Geno Hayes, who told him to not worry about making mistakes.
"He said, 'Look, first just worry about special teams,' " Watson said. " 'The linebacker stuff will come.' I just took my steps. You live for that day, not try to worry about tomorrow."
Hayes and Baker saw Watson gradually improve, picking things up on film and looking more comfortable on the field.
Said Hayward, "It was all new to him, so he was playing kind of cautious. Now he's kind of opening up, flying around, making a lot of plays. Because now he's realized if you slow the game down, you play faster."
Watson said he is better able to come off the ball without hesitation and is a better student, which helps him avoid making the same mistake over and over.
Veteran linebacker Barrett Ruud calls Watson a gamer, a player who might not necessarily look great in practice but who performs well in games.
Morris learned that when he first put Watson in a game on defense, Nov. 2 against Atlanta, after Black hurt an ankle. Watson had two tackles, a quarterback pressure and one tackle for loss.
"I was scared when he went into the Atlanta game, but (Watson) showed me the light," Morris said. "He went out there and showed me nothing but what he's been taught and how much he's grown."