Sterling Moore has found a home as an outside cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is right back where he started when he first arrived in Florida in the spring. His path to a starting spot in the Buccaneers' defense was circuitous, even if it did eventually come full circle.
There were stops along that path that weren't particularly enjoyable for the fifth-year defender. He spent a good portion of the spring working with the outside cornerbacks but moved into the nickel spot that most considered his natural position for training camp. Once the season began, Moore was the team's primary nickel back, but his playing time dwindled after the first three games. The Buccaneers eventually moved outside corner Alterraun Verner into the slot, which left Moore as a reserve corner behind starters Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins. Moore was on the field for just 20 total defensive plays from Games 4-7.
"It was definitely hard, especially with the year I had last year and knowing what I can do on the field," Moore admitted about that month of relative inactivity. "I think any guy in the secondary wants to be on the field. And it was tough, to be honest with you. But I just went out there every day, I competed hard in practice and showed what I can do. When my time came I just wanted to capitalize on it."
In the larger picture, the Bucs' secondary continued to struggle no matter what combination of corners, nickels and safeties the coaches put on the field. Two weeks ago, Head Coach Lovie Smith tried something new, elevating Moore and undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah into starting roles, ahead of Banks and Jenkins. The results have been good, particularly in terms of limiting big plays. In the two contests since that switch, the Buccaneers have given up just three completions of 20 or more yards, and none longer than 24. Moore thinks he and Adjei-Barimah are playing without fear, because they've already experienced both ends of the depth chart.
"I think we both have the attitude that we're both undrafted guys and we both weren't playing at one time, so we just want to go out there and ball," said Moore. "We've already not played. If you go back to not playing, we've already been there, so we're just going out there and being football players."
Moore spent most of Sunday's win over Dallas covering his old teammate, Dez Bryant, the Cowboys' most dynamic pass-catcher. Bryant was targeted 12 times by Matt Cassel but finished with just five catches for 45 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, Cassel targeted a pass-catcher being covered by Moore nine times and ended up with five receptions for 50 yards. Moore spent plenty of time practicing against Bryant while in Dallas and believes that helped prepare him for a strong showing Sunday.
"I definitely think it did," said Moore. "I know the routes that make him comfortable, I know his releases, but he's still a big-time receiver. He's capable of making big-time catches even when you're in good position.
"I was definitely motivated, but there was definitely a familiarity with what they do on offense and the guys that they have. So I definitely didn't put too much pressure on myself and kind of overthink what they do. I knew they wouldn't go out of their way to change their game plan."
If it was a confidence boost for Moore to play so well against his former teammates, it was probably more important what his performance meant for those with whom he's currently sharing a locker room.
"I kind of recognize it now, especially with the responsibility they gave me last week of following Dez around," said Moore of earning his coaches' trust. "But to me it was more so the guys in this locker room – they had a lot more confidence in me and my abilities. They said, 'This is a big test but you're up for it. Just go out there and play your game.' It meant a lot more to me that the guys in this locker room were confident in me."
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Moore has played every defensive snap during the last two games, and Adjei-Barimah is only a few behind that. The Bucs have tinkered with their secondary throughout the season, trying to get the type of results they had originally expected. That process may not be over, but given Moore's impressive work over the last two weeks, he's likely to continue to see playing time percentages more like what he's enjoyed the last two weeks than the month before that. That's all he's wanted since he's arrived.
"Like I said when I first got here, I don't want to be labeled as just a nickel," said Moore. "I know I can play inside, I know I can play outside and I know I can do them well. It's just about waiting for an opportunity."