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Buccaneers rookie recap: Week three

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Tampa Bay’s rookie defensive backs continued to grow in week three’s loss to the Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Buccaneers took their first loss of the year on Monday night, falling to the Steelers by a score of 30-27. Through three games, it appears that the newcomers in the secondary are going to be the crown jewels of Tampa Bay’s 2018 rookie class. It’s time for this week’s rookie recap.

CBs M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis, S Jordan Whitehead

As stated above, the Bucs have to like what they’re seeing from the rookies in the back half of the defense. M.J. Stewart finished as the team’s leading tackler in Monday night’s loss, picking up nine (all solo) and one pass defended. He did that in just 43 snaps (65 percent of the overall snaps). His role on the defense is growing as a result of Vernon Hargreaves’ injury, but he has handled it extremely well. Tampa Bay’s pass defense is struggling, sure, but there’s so much youth back there. It’s clear that the rookies are progressing. Stewart has impressed, but he isn’t the only one coming into his own.

Carlton Davis had another tough matchup this week, getting some time against Antonio Brown. “AB” is the best receiver in the NFL, but Davis pretty much locked him down whenever the two were matched up. Brown caught six passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, but 27 of those came on a touchdown he scored on Brent Grimes. Davis was in on 63 snaps (95 percent). Him getting as much time as he is, this early in his career, is doing wonders for his development. By the end of this year, he very well could be the team’s top corner for the foreseeable future.

At the safety position, Jordan Whitehead is developing as well. Chris Conte reportedly started Monday’s game with a torn PCL. It was quickly made clear that him playing was a horrible idea, as Vance McDonald stiff-armed him into 2019 on a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter. After that, Conte left the game and was later placed on injured reserve. With the veteran out, Whitehead stepped in and played well. He took 55 snaps (83 percent) and racked up four solo tackles. He and Justin Evans are the team’s future at the safety position. Getting a jump on that this early in Whitehead’s career is only going to help the future of the defense as a whole.

Head coach Dirk Koetter was clearly impressed with the performance of his rookie defensive backs. Here’s what he had to say about the three guys on Tuesday:

First off, I thought Carlton Davis was outstanding in the game. I think for the guy he was having to cover, he showed no fear. The game wasn’t too big for him, he didn’t back down. Played a lot of press coverage, played right up in their face. I thought. M.J. Stewart for the most part played well at nickel in his first full-time game playing nickel. Then we mentioned Jordan Whitehead had a bigger role coming in for Chris Conte, so for a good part of the game we had three rookies when we were in nickel defense – had three rookies out there. Is there going to be some growing pains with three rookies in your secondary and right now two of starting four to start the year DBs [defensive backs] are out? Yeah, there’s going to be some growing pains, but at the same time we really like what those guys have shown so far.”

RB/KR Shaun Wilson

Undrafted free agent Shaun Wilson was active again on Monday, but didn’t have as much of an impact this time around. He only got three snaps (four percent) on offense and took five kicks back for a total of 68 yards (just 13.6 yards per return). He is valuable on special teams, so he will surely continue to get his chances on Sundays. He caught two passes for nine yards in the loss, but didn’t get a carry. With the team struggling to run the ball, could he get some looks in the coming weeks? Possibly, but there’s also another rookie on the outside looking in at a struggling backfield...

Inactives: DT Vita Vea, RB Ronald Jones II, OL Alex Cappa, WR Justin Watson

No. 12 overall pick Vita Vea came back to practice last week, but was still inactive on gameday. He is still listed as a limited participant this week, so his status for Sunday’s game in Chicago still isn’t promising. He may not be back until after the bye week, but the team needs to get him fully healthy before he debuts. Still, it was hard to not wonder about Vea while watching James Conner run right up the middle repeatedly on Pittsburgh’s game-sealing drive.

Second-rounder Ronald Jones was still inactive this week. No, he’s still not a bust. Is the current situation frustrating? Sure it is. If you’re thinking about what it would’ve been like had the Bucs selected Derrius Guice or someone else instead, you’re certainly not alone. But if Jones comes in and plays well, this will be forgotten. With the ground game lacking right now for Tampa Bay, he could get his call soon. After next week’s bye week may be a good bet.

Alex Cappa and Justin Watson both found themselves inactive again. Without injuries to the guys ahead of them, both rookies may be waiting a while for their NFL debuts.

The best of the rest

Sixth-rounder Jack Cichy got 15 snaps on special teams, but didn’t register a tackle.