TAMPA — The Bucs weren't sure what they had in rookie Kwon Alexander, who turned out to be some kind of force of nature that stormed in and blew away all comers at the middle linebacker position.
"Kwon Alexander is a guy who exceeded our expectations, as much as anything where he had to be on the field and in that role," coach Lovie Smith said. "Some guys are made to be out there, to be out front.
"Kwon will make quite a few guys not be able to start."
But now the Bucs are starting over with a critical month of the season remaining thanks to Alexander's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Fortunately, they have two savvy veterans who would have been capable of starting had Alexander's immense athleticism not made it an uneven playing field.
On Wednesday, the Bucs moved Danny Lansanah from strongside linebacker to Alexander's spot in the middle, where Lansanah started two games last season. Veteran Bruce Carter, a free agent from the Cowboys who was signed in the offseason to a four-year, $17 million contract, was working at Lansanah's spot.
"I did it before, it's not nothing new to me," Lansanah said. "I don't like talking about the past, but last year I proved that I could play it. If they put me there, I'm going to do it and play to the best of my ability."
Both Lansanah and Carter have been playmakers, especially in pass defense. Lansanah had three interceptions last season, including two he returned for touchdowns, the first came against Sunday's opponent, the Saints. Carter had five picks with the Cowboys last season.
"Just remembering what Danny did last year, I think he was the only player we had who scored two defensive touchdowns," Smith said. "That's more than a lot of offensive guys scored. He's been around the ball, and he's a smart player. Whenever you can play multiple positions, there's a reason he's been in the league a long time. … We're going to miss Kwon quite a bit, but we're okay moving forward."
However, Carter missed Sunday's 23-19 win over Atlanta with a concussion and still is going through the league's protocol. Though he has been cleared to practice, he must be examined by an independent neurologist before returning to the playing field.
"Bruce can play," guard Demar Dotson said. "I can't wait to see him, but I'm going to mess with him all week: 'Bruce, you have to earn your money now.' "
Of course, it would be naive to think the Bucs won't suffer a dropoff from Alexander, whose speed and sure-tackling ability are a big reason Tampa Bay is tied with Denver for the fewest rushing yards allowed per attempt at 3.5.
"Certainly Kwon is a young player that we're familiar with that can run well," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Bruce Carter is another player that we've seen and played against. But, overall, the team speed, their effort to the ball, how the safeties are playing — all of those things contribute to the lack of leaky yards or the lack of big-play runs against their defense."
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Alexander will forfeit $100,000 in pay and can't have any contact with the club until Jan. 4, the day after the team's final regular-season game at Carolina. As if the team needs more motivation, Alexander will be eligible to return for the playoffs.
"That's another motivation that we've got as a team," quarterback Jameis Winston said of Alexander. "We're fighting to get our brother back on the field because we know Kwon is the quarterback of the defense. … But I know Kwon is going to keep working. He's not going to use this as a period to just take a break, because in Kwon's mind, he's going to be preparing for a game later on this season, and that's the right mentality to have."