Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs' Mason Foster returns to tack of attack
TAMPA - The Mason Foster that Bill Sheridan came to admire while preparing for the draft as a linebackers coach for the Dolphins last season was missing from the Tampa Bay game tape he reviewed this spring as the Buccaneers' new defensive coordinator. Oh, there was a guy with Foster's name and number on his jersey, but that player didn't look at all to Sheridan like the University of Washington linebacker he once urged the Dolphins to draft. There was no sign of the vicious, hard-hitting player whose bone-crunching tackles made him jump off the screen. Little by little, though, the player Sheridan grew so fond of has been returning to the screen. With each passing day, as Sheridan and Bucs coach Greg Schiano review tape of offseason workouts, the playmaker Tampa Bay envisioned when it drafted Foster in the third round in 2011 emerges."He has impressed me more the last 10 days to two weeks," Schiano said. "He's getting a little better." Ultimately, the Bucs need Foster to get a lot better. Like last year, he is slated to be the starting middle linebacker in 2012. While he does face some competition for the job, it likely will take an injury to keep him from the starting lineup. That goes back to what Foster put down on that old college tape. NFL scouts saw an aggressive impact player, but between the end of his college career and the start of his pro career, Foster lost much of what made him stand out. "You see that with a lot of rookies anyway, and here was a guy who was probably thrown in (to a starting role) maybe a little prior to being ready for it,'' said Sheridan, who has been coaching in the NFL since 2005. "So, he just looked a little hesitant compared to what he looked like in college. He wasn't as decisive and attacking a player as he had been. I think even he would tell you that." He will. Foster also will tell you the change in his game was due largely to the change of position he went through and the change of scheme to which he was forced to adjust. Though played all three linebacker positions in college, he was primarily a weak-side linebacker. When he joined the Bucs, he immediately took on the role of middle linebacker. As such, Foster was responsible as a rookie for calling the plays in a scheme he said he didn't really grow familiar with until late in the season, one that didn't necessarily suit him. It wasn't as aggressive or free-flowing as the one at Washington, where Foster recorded 162 tackles as a senior, the second-most in the FBS, and earned All-America honors. "I felt like it definitely took away from the way I like to play," Foster said of former coach Raheem Morris' scheme. "But this year, it's all about getting back to being aggressive. "In the scheme we're playing now, it's all about playing downhill, about making plays in the backfield. The coaches are helping me get back to playing the way I used to and the way I love to, so everything feels more natural." It's not just Foster who is being groomed to play more aggressively. All of the Bucs linebackers are being asked to get more involved as pass rushers and run stoppers behind the line of scrimmage. "That's how we want to play," Schiano said, "but when you do that it shortens your reaction time, if that makes sense, because the closer you get to what you are looking at the less time you have to react.'' Foster isn't concerned about the shorter reaction time. If his rookie season did anything for him, he said, it left him comfortable with the pace of the NFL game. His first offseason working with coaches has helped improve his confidence. "Having the opportunity to bounce things off of the coaches and ask them question is so big," said Foster, who missed offseason workouts a year ago because of the NFL lockout. "There was a big part of the program that I missed last year, and it hurt me, but having the opportunity now to go out and make plays and run around the way I'm used to builds a lot of confidence. So, I'm excited to see what I can put on tape this year." So are the Bucs.