Bucs DE Noah Spence - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
When Bucs rookie defensive end Noah Spence came to Tampa Bay, hopes were high that he could step right in and become an impact edge rusher.
It’s a position that’s given the franchise headaches for years now. Whether it’s free agent duds, draft busts or injury issues, finding defensive ends that can stay on the field, let alone get to the passer, has been a challenge.
But this year was going to be different. Jacquies Smith came out of nowhere to accumulate 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Veteran Robert Ayers Jr. racked up a career-best 9.5 sacks in 12 games with the New York Giants last year. George Johnson could only improve from last season’s zero-sack flop. Spence was deemed by many as a first-round talent scooped up in the second at 39th overall.
Then Johnson went down with a season-ending hip injury. Then Smith joined him on the injured reserve with a knee injury. Then Ayers hurt his ankle Week 2 and has yet to return.
Fourth-year pro William Gholston locking down starting duties on one end of the line is the bright spot.
As the rest of the depth chart of crumbled, though, Spence wasn’t right there to step up and fill in. In fact, his participation was dropping. After failing to record a single stat while playing 35 of 65 defensive snaps Week 1 in Atlanta, Spence’s participation the next four games went to 24, 12, 16 and 21.
Even with the position depletion, Bucs coaches were passing over Spence in favor of undrafted rookie DaVonte Lambert. The reasoning was based on Lambert (6-foot-2, 282 pounds) being better suited to play against the run and get the bulk of the playing time. Becoming a more well-rounded defensive end is a major focal point of Spence’s development this season and head coach Dirk Koetter said this week that the 22-year-old is still working on getting there.
Bucs DE William Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“We’re happy with him and he entered the season as kind of a specialist, more of a pass rush specialist, but he’s having to play more [as an] every down defensive end because of our injuries,” Koetter said. “I think he’d still fit in the ‘learning’ category. He still makes some mistakes that a young player is apt to make, but he likes to play ball and he gives really good effort. And as long as he keeps learning and keeps improving, the future’s bright for him.”
Spence received the most playing time of his six-game NFL career last Sunday in San Francisco, getting on the field for 42 of 70 defensive snaps. He still isn’t doing much to get on the stat sheet, but did record the Bucs’ fourth sack on the last play of the afternoon, hit 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on another occasion, and batted down a pass.
For the year, Spence has posted three total tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits and one pass defense.
“I just want to keep on getting better every week, but it felt great to be out there helping the team [in San Francisco],” Spence said from the locker room at One Buc Place on Wednesday. “I was really hyped after the game. It’s a blessing to be out here with these dudes and it really hit me, like, ‘Wow, you’re in the NFL.’ It’s crazy.”
As for shedding the label of being just a pass rusher, Spence said it’s a primary focus.
“I didn’t want to be out there just running around, I wanted to show that I could do other things. It’s just holding the point of attack and being able to keep my gap assignment.”
Heading into Week 8’s home date with the Oakland Raiders, the Bucs are facing the prospect of playing without Ayers for the fifth straight game. The 31-year-old was one of four players on Wednesday’s injury report, though he did practice on a limited basis. That would leave the Bucs with a mix of Spence, Lambert and Howard Jones playing opposite of Gholston and spelling him throughout the afternoon.
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