As injuries mount, how will the Bucs defense respond?

With the availability of three defensive starters unknown, the Bucs need rookies and role players ready to step up as the season winds down.
49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, middle, is tackled by Bucs safety Josh Hayes (32) and linebacker SirVocea Dennis, who both had to step in for injured defensive starters during Sunday's game.
49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, middle, is tackled by Bucs safety Josh Hayes (32) and linebacker SirVocea Dennis, who both had to step in for injured defensive starters during Sunday's game. [ GODOFREDO A. VÁSQUEZ | AP ]
Published Nov. 20

TAMPA — The status of cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis as well as linebacker Lavonte David remains uncertain for now. The three defensive starters were undergoing MRIs and other medical testing Monday afternoon after injuries sustained in the 27-14 loss to the 49ers in California.

Left tackle Tristan Wirfs, who missed a few plays in the fourth quarter after getting stepped on, is also wait-and-see, with coach Todd Bowles saying he is dealing with a leg issue.

“He’s pretty sore, but it’s Monday. We’ll give it a chance until the end of the week,” Bowles said. “Tristan is a pretty tough guy.”

Bowles confirmed that Dean is dealing with an ankle injury. The cornerback jumped for the ball on 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s 76-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter and crumpled to the turf. He had to be carted off the field. Davis (hip) and David (groin) also left the game.

At 4-6, but still tied for second in the NFC South, the Bucs will have to hope they get good news from those tests as they head to Indianapolis to face the Colts this week with their postseason window narrowing.

“We’re always ramping it up because that’s just a part of the job and what we do,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “As we come down to the wire, it’s more important because these games start to mean more — especially as far as us making a playoff run.”

The priority obviously will be trying to get those defensive starters back quickly, but the Bucs saw some things to build on from the backups who stepped in.

Safety Kaevon Merriweather, defensive back Josh Hayes and linebacker SirVocea Dennis — all rookies — were forced to play much more significant snaps than expected.

Winfield, who finished Sunday’s game with 16 tackles, was impressed with the young players.

“That’s part of the game — injuries happen, people go down,” Winfield said. “It’s next man up. They came in, they were excited to play and I thought they played well.”

Merriweather, signed as a free agent out of Iowa in May, played the most; he was in on 34 snaps and finished with five tackles.

“I thought he did a good job,” Bowles said. “He flew around, he made some plays. We know he’s a very physical guy. He can run and hit, he had his first chance to play, and he didn’t hurt us.”

Hayes, drafted in the sixth round out of Kansas State, also had five tackles on 15 snaps, and fifth-round selection Dennis (Pittsburgh) had three on 17 snaps.

“They gave us a chance,” Bowles said. “The best thing about them is they’re fearless, and they don’t know any better. I thought those guys flew around pretty (well).”

Bowles said the bottom line is that the defense has to be better no matter who is healthy this Sunday.

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“The defense has to be more productive,” Bowles said. “It’s not just them. Everybody’s got to produce more. When you lose a starter, everybody has to make more plays.”

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