TAMPA — The game ball, the one with the red Cardinals logo stamped on it, rested in the cubby above his locker.
It was the ball he intercepted from Arizona rookie quarterback Kyler Murray at the Tampa Bay 8-yard line when Murray was about to put the game away with 3:40 remaining to play Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
All last week, Bucs rookie cornerback Jamel Dean had arrived at defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s office by 7 a.m., a full hour before meetings started.
“I just had him talk me through things and teach me the game of football,’’ Dean said after Tampa Bay’s 30-27 victory, a win that would not have been possible without Dean’s interception.
“I know at cornerback, our job is already hard as it is. And if you go out there unprepared, it’s just going to be a long day for you.’’
Nobody had a longer day than Dean the previous Sunday in Seattle. Pressed into starting when cornerback Carlton Davis hurt a hip in warmups, Dean gave up three of Russell Wilson’s five touchdown passes in a 40-34 overtime loss.
“I beat myself up,’’ Dean said. “Never before had I given up three touchdowns. That right there really bothered me.’’
But this time, when Murray tried to connect with receiver Trent Sherfield on a corner route, Davis recognized it and beat Sherfield to the spot, recording his first NFL interception. The Bucs used the turnover — only the fifth interception thrown by Murray this season — to drive 92 yards to win the game on Peyton Barber’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:57 remaining.
“Honestly, when I threw it, there’s no way in hell I thought (Dean) was going to pick that ball off,’’ Murray said. “So it’s unfortunate.’’
Dean picked up a lot of passengers on his road to redemption, a twisty thoroughfare that included two of his fellow defensive backs who were benched; coach Bruce Arians, who lost a timeout after throwing a flag for a challenge he didn’t have; the special teams unit, for allowing Arizona’s punter to complete a flea-flicker pass on fourth down; running back Ronald Jones, who dropped the ball for a fumble; and quarterback Jameis Winston, who threw two more interceptions.
Dean wasn’t supposed to be on the field in that situation that led to the interception. But cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was benched by Arians in the fourth quarter for not giving his full effort.
“He didn’t look like he was hustling to go make that tackle,’’ Arians said.
Hargreaves’ first replacement was Ryan Smith, who was in for only a couple plays but got beat for a 69-yard touchdown pass from Murray to Christian Kirk, one of three touchdown passes Kirk caught in the game. Finally, the Bucs turned to Dean.
“Jamel is a tough, tough player,’’ said Bucs rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “I noticed that the first day he got here. I know after the last game, I texted him and said, ‘Keep working, keep grinding and just grow. You can’t linger in the past and things that happen.’
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“He got thrown in the fire. Accept it and keep going and learn from it, and that’s what he did this week. I expected it.’’
As Dean and Murphy-Bunting noted, many young Bucs players seek out linebacker Lavonte David for advice and counsel. The eighth-year pro can be as calm as a lagoon and a safe harbor for young players who are swept up by the high pressure of the NFL.
“That’s a guy I look up to all the time,’’ Murphy-Bunting said. “Whenever I got some problems and issues, I go to him. Whenever I need a confidence-booster, I walk around him because I know he’s going to give it to me.’’
David also will have his teammates’ backs on the field.
Winston threw his second interception when he tried to force a pass into coverage to Chris Godwin. The ball was batted up in the air by Budda Baker and intercepted by Jordan Hicks. But David got the ball right back two plays later when he dislodged it from running back David Johnson after a short pass and recovered the fumble, the first by the Cardinals all season.
Jones was having his best day as a pass-catcher, with eight receptions for 77 yards, when he took a pass in the left flat and just lost his grip, the fumble recovered by Baker.
It was Dean who provided redemption for Jones.
On the series after Jones fumbled, Murray connected with Larry Fitzgerald, who took a hit from Jordan Whitehead but hung on for 24-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 15.
A field goal would at least have prevented the Cardinals from losing if they allowed a late touchdown. But Murray was going for a lot more when Dean made the play of the game, and his life.
Winston, who passed for 358 yards and a touchdown, hit Godwin on first down for 49 yards and then got a pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up Barber’s winner.
This time the Bucs’ defense held on to a lead — the opposite of what they did against the Giants and Seahawks — to snap a four-game losing streak in their first game at Raymond James Stadium in 49 days.
David looked across the locker room to Dean, who was being interviewed by his third or fourth wave of reporters.
“That was huuuuuuge,’’ David said of the interception. “Especially off a week like last week, backs against the wall, having to step up. It was kind of the same moment, but (Dean) made the play this time.’’