TAMPA, Fla. -- It was the type of moment Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie safety Justin Evans dreamed about. The first series of his first NFL start. A prime-time game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. A badly overthrown pass intended for Chris Hogan. Evans pounced on it for the first interception of his NFL career.
He nearly had two more interceptions, finishing with two of the Bucs' three pass breakups against Brady. By Wednesday, it had become a distant memory for Evans, a second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M. It's on to the Arizona Cardinals. Yes, his play had given his confidence a boost, but that wasn't an area in which he was lacking.
"If I would have played terrible in that game, right now my confidence would be at an all-time high still because that's just how I am," said Evans, 22. "It's just football. Some games you do well. Some games you do bad. And I know that. You've just gotta come [to work]. Whether you look good or bad, you've still gotta work hard the next day."
Evans had nine combined tackles in the game, which ranked second on the team. It came as no surprise to Bucs coach Dirk Koetter or defensive coordinator Mike Smith, even though Evans was filling in for injured starter Keith Tandy. The coaches felt comfortable enough in what Evans had done in 45 snaps against the New York Giants the previous week, even for a player who took a lot of gambles in coverage in college.
"This guy is a freakish athlete and that is why he was drafted where he was," Koetter said. "Many times, it happens that way when a guy is just kind of sitting back and then he is thrust into there -- because of injury in this case -- and then they take off. There is no denying his talent and it showed up big in the game.”
Evans missed time this offseason and training camp because of a knee injury. The coaching staff also needed him to communicate more on defense. That took some time. Then there were concerns about wrapping up and finishing tackles, which you could see in the preseason. But with injuries to not only Tandy but also T.J. Ward, it was time to sink or swim.
"I think he had one missed tackle in the game last week, but he had a couple really solid tackles in space," said Smith, who credits defensive backs coach Brett Maxie and secondary coach Jon Hoke for helping Evans. "He is a long player. If he will continue to understand how you have to take the grass when you’re in the open field and use that length, he will get guys to the ground more times than not.”
"He was a very aggressive player. In open space, you’ve got to make sure you have someone that you’re working with and you’re not playing it like you’re the only guy on the field," Smith said. "I think he’s got a much better understanding of that. I’ve been very pleased. For him to come in and have nine tackles against the defending Super Bowl champs and probably the greatest quarterback of all time and get an interception -- the guy has to be excited about his first start in the NFL."
Both Tandy and Ward returned to practice Wednesday, but were limited. The Bucs also didn't select Evans with such a high draft pick to be a backup; they envisioned he would be a starter at some point. Will that continue now?
That's how Tandy won his job last year, when he stepped in for injured Chris Conte and produced four interceptions in the final five games. The Bucs cross-train their safeties to be somewhat interchangeable, so they'll want to look closely at finding the right combination of players -- not just physically, but also with how they communicate with the rest of the secondary.
"He just needs reps and he needs to see it," Smith said. "I think he is going to be a guy that is going to help us in the short term and the long term. He is a guy that can play both strong and free safety. He’s getting comfortable back there and no disrespect to any of the other guys, but he is probably the most athletic safety that we have.”
Evans has made a strong case to keep playing. He's the only safety with an interception so far this season, and he's already tied for second with Conte and Ward in pass breakups. He credits his time playing baseball, and specifically playing the outfield, for helping him track the ball.
Regardless of his starting status, Evans said he will prepare the same way he did the past two weeks, and he won't stop taking risks. That's in his DNA.
"Playing safety, you're always taking risks," Evans said. "Your coaches know that. Sometimes you take a risk and you do something good, they won't say nothing. But if you take a risk and blow the coverage, it's all on you. It's hard, but that's just the life we live and the position we play."