There are 11 spots on the football field for defensive coaches to arrange their players, but some lend themselves to substitutions more than others. It was strange enough to be noteworthy, for instance, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing edge rushers Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Anthony Nelson on every snap down the stretch in 2022 due to injuries. At some other spots, like off-ball linebacker, it's a surprise when those players are subbed it, at least on a majority of defenses, including the Buccaneers.
Through the first nine games of the 2023 season, the Buccaneers usually had six of those 11 spots occupied by players who were on the field for at least 95% of the defensive snaps. That dipped to five three times and to four once, but never lower than that. Until Game 10 in San Francisco.
In the Buccaneers' 27-14 road loss to the 49ers, only linebacker Devin White and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. played even 80% of the defensive snaps (they both got a 100% snap share). The reason for this was obvious: injuries. Starting safety Ryan Neal was held out of the game with a thumb injury and his spot was split between two fill-ins. In the third quarter, three more defensive starters were knocked out by injuries: cornerbacks Carlton Davis (hip) Jamel Dean (ankle) and linebacker Lavonte David (groin). David ended up missing the final 17 defensive snaps, 13 more than he had sat out in the first nine games combined.
The result was some young and untested players being forced into their first or nearly their first regular-season action…and critically, all at the same time. For essentially the entire fourth quarter, the Bucs' defense was rolling with second-year cornerback Zyon McCollum and rookie Josh Hayes at cornerback, rookie SirVocea Dennis at linebacker and rookie Kaevon Merriweather at safety. That doesn't even count undrafted rookie Christian Izien, who has been the team's starting slot corner all season.
For Merriweather, who actually started the game in Neal's place, and Hayes, it was the first time all season they had appeared on defense, though both have had major roles on special teams. For Dennis, it was his first extended action after he had drawn five cameo snaps over the course of three other defensive appearances.
The game script probably helped, as the 49ers were protecting a lead that at one point ballooned to 20 points and never got under 13 thereafter, but it's worth noting that the home team didn't score in the third quarter. The Buccaneers' young defenders, acting in concert, handled being thrown into the deep end reasonably well.
"They did well," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "You know, those guys came out, they flew around, made some plays. They gave us a chance. The best thing about them is they're fearless, and they don't know any better. I thought those guys flew around pretty good."
Hayes contributed three tackles during his 15 snaps. Dennis had two tackles in 17 snaps. Merriweather, who split time with Dee Delaney after taking the opening snap and eventually was on the field for 34 plays, had four tackles. Merriweather was the only one of the three to know going into the game that he was going to have an expanded role, and the fact that he out-snapped Delaney by 14 plays suggests that he kept his head above water in his NFL defensive debut.
"I thought he did a good job," said Bowles. "You know, he flew around, [and] he made some plays. We know he's a very physical guy. He can run and hit, he had his first chance to play, and he didn't hurt us.
On Monday, Bowles said the Buccaneers were still awaiting the results of MRI examinations on David, Davis and Dean to determine how much time they would miss, if any. He also expressed hope that Neal would get back on the practice field after sitting out last week. The Bucs' defense would be unquestionably in better shape in Week 12 against Indianapolis if it has its veteran starters on the field, and David in particular is a captain and a tone-setter. If any or all of those usual starters can't go, the Buccaneers will find out more about their young and untested defenders, but they would at least have some cautious optimism based on how they played in San Francisco..