TAMPA — For all the talk about TE O.J. Howard and WR Chris Godwin, the Bucs rookie who has made the biggest improvement might be S Justin Evans.
He's fourth on the team with 43 tackles and tied for the club lead with two interceptions.
His first-half interception in the end zone against Jay Cutler was a pivotal play in the Bucs' 30-20 win at Miami last week. But Evans still is just as prone to an occasional blown coverage, as was the case in Matt Moore's tying 61-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills.
"I like to get in one-on-one situations with him and just talk about, 'Hey, what did you do well? What did you think about it?' And not put him in a setting outside of it," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "He realized he had a play or two that he'd like to have back. His athleticism is off the charts. That interception that he made in the game — there (are) not many guys that can make that play.
"I'd like for him to stay in the end zone, but hey, if he would have run it back for a touchdown, we would've said it was a great play. Those are all learning moments for him. He's had a number of them this year.
"I think long term he is going to make a lot of plays. Once he gets the feel of the NFL game and the pacing of it and the pace of the season, he is going to be a really good player because not only can he run — he's got great hands and he is not afraid to mix it up and put his face in there. He is a physical player, as well."
When the Bucs signed T.J. Ward the week before the opener, safety became a three-man rotation between Ward, Evans and Chris Conte. But Evans has emerged as the one who rarely leaves the field. Against Miami, he played all 64 defensive snaps while Ward played 39 (61 percent) and Conte 25 (39 percent). Keith Tandy, who had four interceptions in the final five games of 2016, did not play one defensive snap.
"I know the guys that are rotating aren't happy about that," coach Dirk Koetter said. "Then we've got a fourth guy in Keith Tandy, who I am sure is the unhappiest of them all because he is not playing at all on defense — very little — and he was playing very good for us at the end of the year. I know all those guys care about it because they all come to my office and tell me how much they want to be the man, and that is the first step. We'd love for the play to separate."
Evans' athleticism gives him the edge. His speed makes him the best centerfielder. Ward, 30, at this point in his career, is primarily a box safety. When teams spread the field with three or four receivers, Evans is capable of playing man-to-man.
"We're facing more three and four wide receiver sets and when you're doing that, the box safety is kind of disappearing from our game," Smith said. "There is not a true strong safety in most games — maybe in certain downs and distances you're going to play with a strong safety. You've got to have them interchangeable and they're going to have to line up and be able to cover wide receivers. Justin has the athleticism to do that."
SMITH SECOND-GUESSING SMITH: The team's biggest defensive failure has been lack of sacks. Its 15 sacks are tied for 30th in the league. Only Oakland (14) has fewer.
A season-ending shoulder injury to DE Noah Spence is a big factor. But the Bucs haven't gotten any consistent pressure from DE Robert Ayers or DE William Gholston. Not adding an edge rusher, with the exception of Spence, in four seasons is one of the biggest negatives on GM Jason Licht's record.
But there are other ways to get to the quarterback and that means bringing extra pass rushers. Smith's defense last week at Miami shut down the run game after Damien Williamse_SSRq 69-yard run to start the game. But the Bucs allowed the Dolphins to convert six third downs of 8 yards or more.
"There in the second half, it was seven-man protections," Smith said. "When that happens, you've got to get guys that can win their one-on-ones or we've got to try to over-populate one side of the ball and I probably didn't do a good enough job in the third-down-and-10 (situations). We're trying to get more resources to rush the passer. I had to evaluate my play-calling there in the second half which I do every week."
Koetter defended Smith's approach: "We definitely got on a bad streak in the second half where we were playing zone and he had too much time. Any play caller in the league, when you have the benefit of time and video tape or digital tape … you always second guess yourself."
DT Gerald McCoy has 20 quarterback hits, tied for the most in the NFL. He has 10 tackles for loss, tied for the most among defensive tackles. McCoy's five sacks are tied for the third-most among defensive tackles, trailing only Cincinnati's Geno Atkins and Dallas' David Irving (six each). He leads the Bucs in all three categories.