This past Sunday, for the first time since Week 15 of the 2009 season, the Tampa Buccaneers' defense lined up without Geno Hayes on the field for the game's opening snap.
In 2009, his second year in the NFL, Hayes had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Derrick Brooks as the Buccaneers' starting weakside linebacker. He opened all but three games that season and all 16 contests in 2010, earning a growing reputation as a big-playmaker. The Buccaneers hoped for more of the same from Hayes in 2011, but after seven more starts to open the season, he found himself watching from the sideline in New Orleans. Adam Hayward took his spot in the starting lineup, playing strongside linebacker so that Quincy Black could move from strong to weak.
Head Coach Raheem Morris explained that he was worried about "consistency issues" with Hayes' work, and that combined with a lack of splash plays meant it was time to try a new lineup at linebacker. Tampa Bay's defense as a whole has had some struggles this year, ranking 29th in yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed, but Hayes says he does not consider himself a scapegoat after his benching in New Orleans.
"I don't see that as it is," said the fourth-year defender. "I see it for what it is. I wasn't playing well and they made their decision and ran with it. All I can do is get behind them and do their thing. I wish [my season] could be better but I think there are a few things I can work on as far as technique and reading my keys a little better than I am, and I'll be good to go."
On Wednesday, Morris said the Buccaneers will stay with the same starting trio for the Week 10 game against the Houston Texans. However, while Hayes did not play a single defensive snap against the Saints, he will be part of the game plan against Houston on Sunday. Morris also indicated that Hayes can fight his way back into a larger role, and perhaps the starting lineup, with improved play.
"Yes, we will have him back," said Morris. He had a nice day of practice today. He had a nice day of practice last week, despite adverse [situations]. Hopefully it's a wake-up call for Geno to get him back on the field and get him going again. Hopefully he can get back out there and play a little bit. We'll get him out there in a part-time role this week, see what he can do, and hopefully he can develop a nice competition there at linebacker. Hopefully the best three win at some point."
The Bucs could end up using five linebackers in a variety of combinations on Sunday. When Hayes goes into the game, he would man his familiar weakside spot, which means Black could slide back over to the strong side or get a breather while Hayward remains in play. The Bucs also occasionally use Dekoda Watson on the strong side, as well as in their "Redskin" formation with three down lineman and a linebacker as a stand-up pass-rusher.
Morris didn't try to pin the Bucs' defensive issues solely on Hayes, either. The use of different combinations at linebacker is an effort to find the lineup that will be most effective at Morris' two goals on defense: "Score and get the ball back."
"We've got a couple different combinations we like at linebacker," he said. "Not that you're down on any of them, I just want more consistent play out of all of them, really. You need impact plays across the board. It starts up front, obviously, but you want impact plays from impact guys. Geno's definitely a splash-play guy for us the last couple of years. When you don't get the splash plays and you get the inconsistent play you've got to wake them up somehow and that's my job as a coach."
Hayes' job description changed last Sunday, and for the first time since Morris took over as head coach in 2009 it didn't include the word "starter." Now his task is to win that designation back on the practice field, and in the meantime support his fellow linebackers.
"I'm still going to be with my team," he said. "I'm not down on anybody, I'm not going to talk bad about anybody. All I can do is support them. [I'll] keep working hard in practice – don't change anything other than go out and work harder and focus on the small things at the linebacker position."