It wasn’t that long ago when Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith shrugged off the idea of defensive tackle Henry Melton moving to end.
“Don’t look too much into that. Henry is an inside player,” Smith said after an early August practice that saw the seven-year veteran taking snaps at defensive end.
Then came injuries to expected starting end Jacquies Smith and backup T.J. Fatinikun, and there was Melton on Monday night starting at left end against the Cincinnati Bengals. Adding to the list of potentially dinged up Bucs ends is Larry English, who had to sit out a practice session this week.
Smith and the Buccaneers coaching staff still view Melton as a tackle first and foremost but situations and depth can alter his contributions.
“Henry can play inside, he can play outside,” Smith said at Wednesday’s post-practice press conference. “And sometimes injuries dictate how much he plays inside (and) outside. That was the case this past week. But once we get all the guys back, he’ll probably be more inside than outside.”
The good news is that none of the above-listed players are dealing with serious injuries that require much missed time. Jacquies Smith and T.J. Fatinikun are back on the practice field, though their game-day status is unclear.
But the line isn’t the only defensive unit shifting guys around.
Bucs DE TJ Fatinikun – Photo by Getty Images
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier took to the podium Thursday at One Buc Place and detailed the secondary’s current state now that defensive back Leonard Johnson is out with an ankle injury that has him using crutches to get around the facility.
Johnson entered training camp aiming to hold onto his starting role at nickelback. The team brought in veteran Sterling Moore this offseason to challenge at the position, but then began giving him more reps on the outside to serve as a backup to starting cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks.
It’s a circumstance complicating the team’s ability to land on third and fourth cornerbacks, Frazier said. “I think it’s still up in the air to a degree. We’ve had two preseason games. I think this third game hopefully will help define it a little bit. Unfortunately losing Leonard means Sterling has to play more at the nickel. He was a guy we were kind of pegging to compete for that third or fourth spot.
“Now that means Mike Jenkins has to stay healthy for us and just keep improving,” he continued. “We’ve got some other young guys that we’re working with. We want to see Brandon Dixon continue to improve, as well. It’s still kind of in flux in a lot of ways. There’s nothing definitive when it comes to our third and fourth corner at this point.”
A similar scenario to Moore’s is also playing out for backup Isaiah Frey, Frazier said.
“We had him at corner for this last ball game and wanted to take a look at him there, but with Leonard being down we’ve got to move him back to nickel,” Frazier said. “He’ll get his reps at nickel in this ball game.”
There’s still over two weeks until Tennessee travels south to Raymond James Stadium, so Bucs players and coaches are taking an approach to the situation that the more you can do, the more you can do.
“We have a lot of guys up front that are hybrids, that can play in and out,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said Thursday. “But they’ll only be as good as they work to be as far as perfecting their craft and their skill set. Those guys, if they work on their skill set they can master being an outside and inside guy.
“You have Henry Melton who’s a Pro Bowl talent and he started at end for us this week but he’s also played 3-technique. Will Gholston has done it, George Johnson has even done it. [Defensive line coach Joe] Cullen has done a great job of letting guys go in and out. Even in pass rush, one-on-ones, third-down periods, two-minute drills, he lets the ends go inside, he lets some tackles go outside. And the reason being is he wants the four best rushers on the field, regardless of who they are or where they have to play.”