TAMPA — Since earning a spot on the Bucs’ roster as a tryout player, Markees Watts has spent his rookie season primarily imitating the league’s best pass rushers on the scout-team defense in practice.
“I am on (Nick) Bosa duty,” Watts said of his assignment this week as an impostor for the 49ers edge rusher. “I’m having the time of my life.”
It may not be long before players on the 49ers, Sunday’s opponent, and other teams are asked to serve as stand-ins for Watts and Bucs rookie outside linebacker YaYa Diaby.
The future of the Bucs pass rush may have arrived — loudly — in Sunday’s 20-6 win over the Titans.
Making his NFL regular-season debut, Watts played only 11 snaps on defense but provided a huge impact.
In the first quarter, Watts got cut on a screen pass but popped up off the ground “like he’s made of rubber,” said NFL analyst Brian Baldinger, and limited running back Tyjae Spears to a 6-yard gain on a third-and-18 play. The players on the Bucs sideline erupted.
In the fourth quarter, Watts lined up outside and looped inside on a stunt with nose tackle Vita Vea, hitting the throwing arm of quarterback Will Levis. The ball popped high into the air and was intercepted by Antoine Winfield Jr. The interception iced the game for the Bucs and was their first by a member of the starting secondary this season.
“It felt great, and to see my work affected another player, especially a player that I think deserves everything that comes with the game, it felt great to see (Winfield) catch the ball,” Watts said. “It felt even better to see him smile and run to the end zone (in celebration).”
Diaby, a third-round draft pick from Louisville, was second to Shaquil Barrett among Bucs outside linebackers with 43% of the defensive snaps against the Titans, 5% more than starter Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Diaby responded with his second career sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. He also drew a pair of false-start penalties.
One of those tackles came early in the game when Diaby dropped Titans running back Derrick Henry for a 2-yard loss.
“Soon as I hit him, all I heard was him grunting, ‘Dang. Dang,’ " Diaby said. “But it was fun. … As soon as he got the ball, I was right there.”
Coach Todd Bowles said the decision to make Watts active against the Titans was easy based on his practice performance against two of the NFL’s highest-rated offensive tackles, Luke Goedeke and Tristan Wirfs.
“He’s been giving them fits,” Bowles said. “And because he’s been giving them fits and they’ve been blocking well in ballgames, a lot of that is a credit to him. So, we said, ‘You know? He deserves a shot. Let’s see what he does on Sunday.’
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“He went out and did the same thing, so we really like where he’s at right now. He’s coming along good. He should earn some playing time.”
“I love Watts,” he said. “Watts has got, like, a little trampoline in him. … The dude comes to work every day to give the starters a very good look. It translates in the game when, given the opportunity, he comes strong. I wasn’t surprised at all. I already knew Watts was going to go in and do something.”
Barrett, who has four sacks this season, said he had no doubt Watts and Diaby would make an impact. Diaby, at 6 feet 4 and 272 pounds, is thicker and stronger than some of the other players at that position.
“He came in with his head on right,” Barrett said. “He ain’t got no fear about who’s out there. He’s going to go out and give his heart and all that he has every single time. I love the guys they brought in.”
The secret, Watts said, was to treat his first regular-season game like practice.
“It was nothing bigger, nothing smaller,” he said. “Just show up like I did in practice and the results would be the same.”
Watts has a special connection with Barrett, who switched to No. 7 this season. Watts wears Barrett’s former No. 58 and embraces the challenge to uphold the standard that comes with it.
“When I got here, I didn’t have much knowledge about the jersey and what it meant,” Watts said. “Then I got here and people started telling me we’ve got the same story or something like that, and I’d seen they’d started to correlate and there was some pressure wearing 58 and a standard, and I’m happy so far I’ve been doing that, and I plan on doing that in the future.”
Diaby and Watts weren’t the only outstanding rookies on the defensive front Sunday. First-round pick Calijah Kancey also had a huge game. He had three tackles, including two for loss, and two quarterback hits.
“They’re still developing, but we really like all three right now; like where they are, like the way they’re developing,” Bowles said. “Obviously, they’ve got to continue to be healthy and do the right things to play, and they’re heading that direction, so we’re very happy about that.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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