TAMPA — The veteran leader of the flourishing Bucs defense is starting to receive his due. Following a strong debut, its newest rising star is also gaining notoriety.
Inside linebacker Lavonte David was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for September after logging 24 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble over the season’s first three games. This is the first time David, who is in his 11th NFL season, has received the award.
And rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the team’s second-round draft pick this past April, received the NFC Rookie of the Month award after compiling 23 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, one tackle for loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
David, who is the Bucs longest-tenured player, has often gone unnoticed nationally. But because of this season’s addition of quarterback Tom Brady, and the team’s 2-1 start, he is beginning to receive more attention.
Three games into the season, the Bucs defense ranks second in the league in average yards allowed per play (4.7 yards per play). Their run defense ranks third and their pass defense is eighth.
“The thing that’s enabled me (to play well) is just the confidence I have in the guys out there with me, understanding and knowing that everybody’s gonna be where they’re supposed to be and everybody’s gonna pay with an intensity level that helps me level my play,” David said of winning the award.
Winfield has shown skill beyond his years and quickly earned the trust of the coaches, who shifted him into the nickel back role when Sean Murphy-Bunting went out with an injury last week. He’s been used in many forms, including as a blitzer in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' pressure-heavy scheme.
“Antoine is one of those rookies who comes in and does what he’s supposed to do,” David said. “He’s been playing lights off for us and hopefully he keeps it up. We’re just trying to build on our performances that we’ve been putting out there.”
‘We’ll get guys the ball’
Getting the Bucs tight ends — most notably Rob Gronkowski — more involved in the offense last week was a result of adapting to added attention on wide receiver Mike Evans, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said Thursday.
The tight ends combined for 97 receiving yards, and Gronkowski had a team-high six catches for 48 yards after totaling just two receptions in the first two games combined. Tight end O.J. Howard added three catches for 49 yards, including a 33-yard reception that was the Bucs' second-longest gain of the day.
“You can’t control what the defense does,” Leftwich said. “If they want to put three on Mike, they’re gonna put three on Mike. We’ve got to be structured in a way that the guy who gets the one-on-one matchup, the guy that the ball does go to, makes the play. And I think that’s what we’re trying to develop. Like I tell you, don’t force feed it. We’ll get guys the ball."
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Who steps up for depleted receiving corps?
Receivers Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Scotty Miller (groin) both missed practice on Thursday, so with potentially two receivers out for Sunday’s game against the Chargers, it could set up more snaps for rookie fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson, who saw his first game action last week with Justin Watson out.
“I like where he’s at,” Leftwich said of Johnson, who played 22 snaps at receiver but did not have a catch in his debut last week. “He’s functional to be out in the game now, he’s just got to learn how to insert himself within the offense. We understand that there’s going to be some growing pains and keep working hard and make plays when they come his way.”
While he didn’t practice with the team, running back Leonard Fournette tested his injured ankle on a side field with head athletic trainer Bobby Slater on Thursday.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.