TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in need of a play. A big one, too.
They’d just allowed the Miami Dolphins to drive 63 yards in nine plays during the opening series of their preseason game at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday and were now facing a third-and-1 at their own 15.
That it was rookie nose tackle Akeem Spence who delivered in that moment by dropping running back Daniel Thomas for a 2-yard loss came as little surprise to those on the Tampa Bay sideline.
Spence has been making plays like that all preseason.
“He’s looked great so far,’’ Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said of Spence, who leads all Bucs defensive linemen with six tackles, including four for a loss, this preseason. “I’m really impressed with how he’s played.’’
So is Bucs coach Greg Schiano. He said Spence is proving to be a better athlete and pass rusher than the Bucs expected and that his skills are showing up when it matters most, such as Saturday night.
Schiano described Spence as one of the “bright spots’’ in the Bucs 17-16 come-from-behind victory that night, but Schiano is not easily pleased and he was quick to point out Spence has not shined consistently.
“He’s getting better every day and he’s starting to understand how hard it is to play in this league,’’ Schiano said. “So he’s playing well - at times. But he’s still an inconsistent rookie.’’
What Spence has struggled with so far is controlling the A gap, which is the space between the guard and center. That is most often Spence’s assignment and he’s shown a tendency to lose control of that area.
That’s why Schiano has yet to officially name Spence the starting nose tackle. Schiano said the splash plays Spence has made so far are “nice’’ but he worries about Spence’s inconsistency controlling the A gap.
“Losing the A gap is what you don’t see, but that’s what I see,’’ Schiano said. “And (what Spence) has to understand is the A gap may start here, but it may end up over here. And no matter what, you still have to own it.
“If somebody hits you or clips you or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You still have to own that gap in run defense. So I’m not ready to ordain him as Joe Greene just yet. But he has a chance.’’
The Bucs never expected to get Joe Greene-like play out of Spence. They only spent a fourth-round pick on him, after all, but they did trade a sixth-round pick to Oakland to move up 12 spots to get him.
That’s an indication they saw something special in Spence, and the fact he racked up 198 tackles and 26 quarterback pressures in three years as a starter at Illinois suggests there is.
“God willing he stays healthy, he’s going to be a good player,’’ Schiano said. “Again, I think it’s just a matter of him understanding football and defensive line play better.’’
As someone who started for three straight years in college and played at the level Spence did at Illinois might not seem like he needs to develop a better understanding of the game, but Spence admits he does.
The Bucs utilize their nose tackle differently than most teams and differently than the Illini did, tilting him in his stance and asking him to use different hand techniques to shed blocks and rip through pass protectors.
Learning those new skills while learning a new defensive scheme and adapting to the pace of the NFL has proven to be a challenge for Spence but those splash plays he keeps turning in are an indication he’s winning the battle.
“When I first started off I was really rusty at all of that,’’ Spence said of the technique changes the Bucs made in his game. “I knew the calls and everything and where to be, but I’d never done that other stuff before and it was hard to get that down.
“And with the gap stuff, I’m coming from college where you can always get your gap back. But now, you have to (do everything you can) to maintain that gap, because one wrong step or move and the (ball carrier) is hitting his head on the goal post in the end zone.’’
Thomas never did find the end zone against the Bucs. Not during that initial series and not during that game as the Bucs limited Thomas to 3 yards on seven carries and the Dolphins to 71 yards on 30 carries.
Spence’s play sparked that effort and he was a big part of it overall, making three more tackles, including another tackle for a loss, before leaving early in the third quarter.
“Once we made that play on third down everybody on the defense started playing,’’ Spence said. “We just had to start making plays and we did that. We didn’t break mentally, we adjusted and we started making plays.’’