TAMPA — Bucs outside linebacker Noah Spence feels free again. The 3-4 scheme of new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles allows Spence to come off the edge standing up and utilizes his athleticism.
Though the scheme is a better fit for Spence, who has had three uneven seasons since the Bucs made him a second-round draft pick in 2016, Friday’s preseason opener against the Steelers showed that though the pieces are there for Spence to become an impact defender, he’s still very much a work in progress.
In the Bucs’ 30-28 loss, Spence officially logged just one tackle, but his speed off the line showed.
He drew offensive holding calls twice against backup left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, but on one of those plays, Spence was penalized for illegal use of the hands, which negated an interception by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves that would have given the Bucs the ball at the Steelers’ 36-yard line.
The penalties offset, allowing the Steelers to keep their drive alive, and they got a field goal out of it. After the game, Bucs coach Bruce Arians was more concerned about that penalty’s impact than the pressure Spence caused.
“It changed the whole game,” Arians said. “Those are the things we have to learn from.”
With last year’s sack leader, Jason Pierre-Paul, likely sidelined until at least October with a neck injury suffered in an offseason car crash, Spence has an opportunity to show he’s the best fit for the 3-4 scheme. And he has done that in training camp.
“He gets off the ball,” Bowles said. “He works out. He’s a great workout guy. He studies a ton. He gets off the ball a lot. He’s fast. We’ve just got to see how he progresses as the scheme progresses.”
Spence said playing in Bowles’ defense is the most fun he has had in the NFL.
“I just feel like I can make a lot more plays, and it feels natural,” said Spence, listed at 6 feet 2 and 251 pounds. “I don’t have to try to get all huge to play the position and (can) just be myself. … We attack, and we try to get to the ball every play. We’re able to go get it.”
Last season Spence was buried on the depth chart, playing just 44 defensive snaps. He didn’t see the field at all in four of the first five games and then didn’t play a single defensive snap in five others.
But a new coaching staff offers a new opportunity, and Spence has impressed his teammates.
“He’s so explosive off the ball,” said outside linebacker Shaq Barrett. “His get-off is amazing, and then he’s real good with his hands as well. And (he has) great body control. So, he’s going to be very good for us this year.”
Said defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: “(He’s) very athletic, can get after the pass rusher, (and) communicates really well. We’re on the same side at times. … I like him a lot. We actually sit next to each other in the meeting room, so we communicate quite a bit.”
Though Spence’s burst coming off the line is impressive, Arians has said Spence needs to get better in his run defense in order to become an every-down linebacker. Spence played 28 snaps Friday, and 10 of those were running plays. His rush defense grade from the statistics website Pro Football Focus was 53.6, sixth worst among the 33 Bucs who played defensive snaps.
“He has a high, high motor, and he’s getting to the quarterback a lot,” Arians said. “I think what we’re doing with him fits. … I want to see him stop the run a little because he’s always rushing the passer.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.