Why rookies will play a bigger role for Bucs for remainder of season

Tampa Bay is dealing with a myriad of injuries, most of them on defense, and will lean heavily on its first-year class down the stretch.
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, middle, is tackled by Bucs safety Josh Hayes (32) and linebacker SirVocea Dennis during the second half of Sunday's game in Santa Clara, California.
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, middle, is tackled by Bucs safety Josh Hayes (32) and linebacker SirVocea Dennis during the second half of Sunday's game in Santa Clara, California. [ GODOFREDO A. VÁSQUEZ | AP ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

TAMPA — Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was starting in only his fourth game as a rookie when he took the field for Tom Brady’s trumpeted return to New England three years ago.

The outside linebacker helped guarantee a happy homecoming for the legendary quarterback by recording two sacks and four quarterback hits in the Bucs’ 19-17 win over the Patriots.

“As a young guy, you’re just out there like, ‘This is the NFL!’” Tryon-Shoyinka said. “That dude right there, I played him in Madden. I’ve got to guard him? All right! It’s like, here it is. You’ve got to show up.”

The Bucs likely will be counting on a lot of rookies to show up big again Sunday against the Colts in Indianapolis.

Both starting inside linebackers, Lavonte David (groin) and Devin White (foot), and cornerback Jamel Dean (ankle/foot) did not practice Wednesday. In addition, cornerback Carlton Davis (hip) was limited. Starting safety Ryan Neal missed last week’s game with a thumb injury.

That means, for the second straight week the Bucs will expect big roles for several of their rookies, including linebacker SirVocea Dennis, defensive back Josh Hayes and safety Kaevon Merriweather, as well as third-year linebacker K.J. Britt.

Last Sunday’s 27-14 loss to the 49ers was the first extensive regular-season action on defense for Dennis, Hayes and Merriweather.

“I think we did a good job of paying attention to the game plan and just making sure whoever goes down, we’re next to go in,” Merriweather said. “I think just paying attention to detail, always being prepared and knowing your number could be called at any moment. I think we all do a good job with that, and I think it showed on Sunday when we all had to step in, especially in a game as big as that one, and I think we all did very well.

“What we said at Iowa is, you’ve got to treat this team like a locomotive. You’ve got to have interchangeable parts to keep this train moving and keep the defense moving without skipping a beat.”

Bucs co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote came away from the loss as encouraged as he could be.

“It wasn’t like a fish out of water, as a lot of rookies look,” he said. “This time of year, injuries are going to be picking up throughout the league, and depth is going to have to get us where we need to be.”

The fundamental flaw to the current construction of the Bucs is obvious. For three years with Brady at the helm, they loaded up on veterans, some past their prime, to give the team a chance each week.

But this season, facing more than $56 million over the salary cap, they made a huge investment in their rookies, counting on the bulk of their 2023 class to fit in where they could get in.

Dennis finished Sunday’s game with three tackles despite playing only 28.7% of the defensive snaps. That’s as many tackles as White had while playing 100% of the defensive snaps.

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Merriweather, who had five tackles, said the game was easier for him because he knew all week he would be the starter.

“It helped knowing I would be counted on to play, so my focus going into that game was being 100% on making sure I was ready to go out there and play to the best of my ability,” he said.

“I think I can read the game a little bit faster and get to my assignment a little quicker. Sometimes my alignment was a little bit off. It was the first game, but I always look for little things I can improve on.”

Merriweather said Bucs veterans have emphasized how long the season is, knowing that with an early bye week after only four games injuries would spike during the second half.

“I think our vets did a good job of telling us this isn’t like college,” he said. “We play a long season, injuries happen, and you’ve got to make sure you’re ready. You want to be able to step in, and you want the coaches to trust you. Ryan (Neal) told me prepare to go in. You’re one play away.”

Foote said Sunday’s game was proof the Bucs rookies have grown up fast.

“It wasn’t too big for them,” he said. “I was impressed with the way they played. They looked mature.”

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