TAMPA — It's a blink-and-you-miss-it nuance, but in Sunday's opener against Chicago, on their very first defensive snap, the Bucs lined up in a 3-4 defense.
The distinction is a small one. Versatile pass rusher Noah Spence, who would normally line up with a hand in the dirt, was standing up as an outside linebacker, in the same posture as rookie Kendell Beckwith on the opposite side of only three defensive linemen.
The Bucs would do the same on the first play of Chicago's next possession, just to give opponents a little sample on tape. It's something else to take up precious practice time addressing as a team prepares for a Tampa Bay defense that prides itself on being "multiple."
"It opens up the defense a little more, makes people think: 'What defense are they going to run?' " said Spence, who at 6 feet 2, 251 pounds isn't much different from Beckwith — Tampa Bay's biggest linebacker at 6-2, 243. "They don't really know, so it keeps them guessing. It's a good thing for us to be versatile."
The Bucs' bread and butter will be as a 4-3 front. With the prevalence of today's three-receiver sets, they'll line up more often with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs in a "nickel" sub package.
But the personnel they have added in the past two years lends itself to the occasional 3-4 wrinkle. That's not only in outside rushers such as Spence and 6-5, 275-pound Ryan Russell. It's also in a massive defensive tackle such as Chris Baker, who anchored those 3-4 looks Sunday in the middle, flanked by 280-pound end Will Gholston on one side and either Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy or fellow tackle Clinton McDonald in a rare cameo at end.
"Obviously, if you're going to play 3-4, you've got to have some outside linebacker body types," coach Dirk Koetter said. "Once you get your guys and you figure out, 'Hey, this guy is pretty sharp. Maybe we should move this guy around a little bit.' "
Having personnel with positional flexibility means the Bucs can have different looks without even substituting. If the goal is to keep opposing offenses out of rhythm and unsure of where the defensive pressure might be coming from, then defensive coordinator Mike Smith likes the idea of keeping teams guessing.
Smith doesn't think of his defense as having 11 starters. When the Bucs go to their nickel, especially in likely passing downs, Smith likes to shift his big ends inside to tackle and bring in "designated pass rushers" such as Spence and Russell, and the 3-4 package is a permutation of that.
"We've said it many times, it's 16 or 17 guys that are going to be our core guys who are going to go out there and play," he said. "We've got to figure out how we're going to rotate those guys, based on who's playing well and who is not."
Some of Sunday's biggest plays were from defensive players who aren't in full-time roles. Nickel back Robert McClain returned an interception for a touchdown. Spence, generally not a starting end, had a sack and forced fumble that led to another touchdown. Newcomer T.J. Ward, a Pro Bowl safety whose playing time will increase, had a tackle for loss.
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A 3-4 outside linebacker must be able to drop in pass coverage in the middle of the field, but that would happen in some 4-3 blitz packages as well. Spence had played only as a defensive end in the NFL, but he moonlighted as an outside linebacker some at Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky.
"It's still football," he said. "There's not much difference. At the end of the day, you go get the football, that's the name of the game."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.