Mason Foster is Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker and head coach Lovie Smith is showing no signs that that’ll be changing anytime soon.
Smith reiterated his confidence in Foster’s ability to hold down one of the defense’s key positions during his Wednesday press conference at One Buccaneer Place this week.
“When I talk about taking a leap, making a lot of improvement defensively, it has to be centered around what the linebackers are doing,” Smith said. “Mason, of course, is a big part of that. We missed him when he was out. We do put an awful lot on our Mike linebacker and just the position as a whole. He’s made plays. Last week, he made plays.
“We’ve been pleased. We’re not there yet, but as long as we continue to make progress, we’re going to be in pretty good shape – led by him.”
Last Sunday’s loss in Chicago guaranteed Tampa Bay of its fourth straight losing season and personnel changes will be coming as the new regime of Smith and general manager Jason Licht prepare for 2015.
One of the higher-profile moves could be at middle linebacker. Foster’s physicality and aggressiveness have never been issues, as he’s still managed to rank second on the team in total tackles (54) despite missing three games earlier this year. Less of a certainty, though, is Foster’s ability to diagnose plays throughout the duration of a game and drop into pass protection.
The Bucs possess adequate depth at linebacker and Foster is still head and shoulders above any reserves on the current 53-man roster. He’s also still 13 regular-season weeks into learning a new defense and all its nuisances. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he’s seeing the former Washington Huskies’ comfort level in this scheme grow from week to week.
“I think he has a better command of the middle linebacker position in this system and what’s required of him,” Frazier said. “You really are the quarterback of the defense in this system and if you don’t have a good grasp of what other people’s roles are, then you’re not going to be what we need at the middle linebacker position. He’s become more aware of his responsibilities and the fact that he can’t just have tunnel vision and just think about the mike, but he has to be aware with what’s happening with the people in front of him and even the people behind him with some of the things that we do defensively and he’s grown in that area. I think it’s helped us to improve.”
The three games Foster missed earlier this season came during the Week 3-5 road stretch against Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The shoulder injury that kept him sidelined is out of sight, out of mind when Foster’s asked about it now, but Frazier said adjustments or slight changes in play are to be expected anytime a player comes back from an injury that’s caused them to miss time.
“No question that was a part of it for sure, especially with all of the contact that he’s involved in,” Frazier said. “Even though he was on the field, I’m sure it was kind of rolling in his mind how much contact can I actually handle without having a setback, and wearing the harness of course limits you to a degree, but he’s playing a lot freer now and it’s showing on the field. Yes, I would say that probably did have an effect.”
I can sure see the improvement. I know this much. Foster is a lot better than Dane Fletcher. Shelton Quarles manned the position very well after taking over for Hardy Nickerson so we ought to know what traits are necessary to improve the depth (no pun intended).
Foster has improved; I think we are seeing the best that he can give. G Bucs!
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