In the absence of Lavonte David at linebacker in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 27-14 loss to the 49ers, the Bucs turned to rookie SirVocea Dennis to hold down the fort. David injured his groin, and Dennis played 17 snaps on defense – ahead of veteran reserve linebacker K.J. Britt – and recorded two tackles. If David does not return to action against the Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday, Dennis, one of the team’s fifth-round picks, could get his first career start playing next to Devin White.
While second-year player Zyon McCollum replaced the injured Jamel Dean, who suffered an ankle injury, it was rookie Josh Hayes that subbed in at cornerback after Carlton Davis III left the game with a hip injury. Hayes, a sixth-round pick, saw his first NFL action on defense after being a core special teams player as a gunner during the first half of his rookie campaign.
Undrafted free agent Kaevon Merriweather also saw his first NFL playing time on defense and got the most responsibility out of the rookies, playing 57% of the snaps in place of the injured Ryan Neal. Each rookie played fine given the circumstance that they were thrown into.
“I thought he did a good job,” Bucs head coach Todd Bowles said of Merriweather. “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.”
There’s been an upstart of great rookie play on the defensive side of the ball lately for Tampa Bay. Calijah Kancey, the team’s first-round pick, has been fantastic at defensive tackle even after missing all of training camp.
And outside linebacker YaYa Diaby has burst onto the scene lately, recording four sacks in his last five games.
It comes as no surprise that with more playing time there’s been more production from the rookie edge rusher. That makes it all the more confusing why after out-snapping Joe Tryon-Shoyinka against the Titans and recording a sack, JTS had more snaps against the 49ers despite not recording a single stat. Meanwhile Diaby managed four tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hits in 21 snaps – 13 fewer than JTS had.
“He didn’t get [his sacks] all in the first quarter like when we say, ‘Let’s stay with him, he’s on a 50-point night,’ like basketball,” Bowles said. “He got them throughout the game and he got them. Week in and week out, he’s been making some splash plays, but understanding the scheme is way more important of what we have to do as well, and he’s coming along with that. We’re fine at the pace we have him in, and we have a plan for him.”
#Bucs HC Todd responds to the justification of playing Joe Tryon-Shoyinka more than YaYa Diaby despite JTS having no statistics in the game and Diaby recording 4 tackles and 2 sacks. pic.twitter.com/fT1JtoWPMb
— PewterReport 🏴☠️ (@PewterReport) November 20, 2023
Where Was Bucs Rookie Pass Rusher Markees Watts vs. 49ers?
There was another rookie outside linebacker that allegedly earned more snaps based on his performance against the Titans, but Markees Watts was only given three defensive snaps at San Francisco. As a reminder, this was a game against the 49ers where quarterback Brock Purdy had a perfect 158.3 passing rating against Tampa Bay’s defense.
“Just schematics of the personnel packages that we were calling,” Bucs head coach Todd Bowles said as to why Watts played on three snaps on defense compared to 11 the week prior. “He’ll get more snaps.”
Watts had one pressure on one of his three snaps against the 49ers. In two games, Watts has produced three QB pressures in seven pass rush snaps. That’s a heck of a ratio for the young, up-and-coming pass rusher out of Charlotte.