TAMPA — Carlton Davis has been learning on the fly. Injuries forced the Bucs' rookie cornerback into a more prominent role early, and his trial-by-fire introduction to the NFL has had its share of obstacles.
But when opportunity comes knocking for inexperienced players such as Davis, a second-round draft pick, a rookie can be atop the depth chart before he knows it.
Davis is coming off his best game as a pro, the Bucs' 26-23 overtime win over the Browns on Sunday. Lining up primarily against the Browns' top receiver, Jarvis Landry, he allowed just one reception on five passes thrown his way.
"I thought he had a good game last week coming off a game that he missed due to health reasons," coach Dirk Koetter said. "We knew we're going to have some growing pains with those rookies in the secondary."
Davis left the Week 4 game against the Bears with a groin injury, and after the bye week, he was sidelined against the Falcons with groin and back ailments.
Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner said Tuesday that Davis has had to learn quickly.
"He's improved, there's no doubt about that," Duffner said. "We'd like him to be about like a five-year vet right now. So the acceleration in terms of his maturation as a player we're turning the dial up on, and he has. Both he and the staff are working real hard to continue to move in a positive and productive way."
Davis is continuing to earn the Bucs' trust in practices and games, and in Sunday's road matchup against the Bengals, he will likely draw another difficult assignment in Bengals wideout A.J. Green, whose 611 receiving yards rank seventh in the league.
At 6 feet 1, Davis is a big cornerback who can play physically with some of the league's top receivers. He has already lined up against the Saints' Michael Thomas and the Steelers' Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster. His performance in those games was a mixed bag. Green offers another challenge.
"I'm still growing. I'm still learning," Davis said. "A lot of people I'm playing against are, like … seven-year vets and I'm still a rookie. … Each and every game is something new to me, and each week I'm taking it on as a new task. I'm not really seeing it as a midway point or an ending point. I'm seeing it as just another opportunity to grow."
Early season injuries to cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III put Davis into a bigger role. At first, the rookie was an easy target. In his first three games, 14 of the 19 passes thrown his way were completed at an average of 12.5 yards per completion.
"I feel like it's kind of a sink-or-swim situation," Davis said. "You go out there and do your job, or focus on what you have to do, or you focus on all the hype in the name or the player. I think at the end of the day it's all about competing. It's all about wanting to go out there and do the job for your team."
Davis said he's trying to concentrate more on what he has to do to get better than get preoccupied with in lining up against a receiver such as Green.
"And at the end of the day… it's never about who you're going up against," Davis said. "It's about the preparation and what you bring to the table as far as effort and energy. So I try to bring that every week, and despite who I'm going against, I just try to be me and get better as myself."
Against the Browns, Davis made one of the biggest plays of overtime on a key third down, getting a hand in to disrupt a pass from quarterback Baker Mayfield to receiver David Njoku that would have given Cleveland a first down.
"Carlton made a big play at the end of the game," Koetter said.
Though Davis was proud of that play, he's focusing more on being consistent.
"You know, it's not just one play, in my eyes," he said. "In my eyes, it's every play. I'm trying to make a play every play. That's just doing my job."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.