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The ‘puppies’ are off the leash, and the Bucs are on a roll

TAMPA — Three hours of head-jarring intensity capping off 18 weeks of relentless challenges.

And when the fight was finally won on Monday night, rookies Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby came be-bopping down the tunnel toward the Bucs locker room like a pair of schoolchildren on the way to recess.

Turns out, youth isn’t always a disadvantage.

If you’re looking for differences between the Bucs team that was manhandled by the Eagles in Week 3, and the group that drilled Philadelphia 32-9 in an NFC wild-card game Monday night, that would be as good a place to start as any.

Over the past four months, the Bucs have gradually worked more and more rookies into the playing rotation. And whether it’s talent, vigor or just needed depth, the younger guys have helped change the trajectory of a season.

“We got a bunch of puppies playing out there right now,” head coach Todd Bowles said.

Puppies with teeth. And energy. And fresher legs.

Maybe it’s a function of the schedule or the gelling of a rebuilt roster, but the Bucs are in a vastly different place this January than they were a year ago. Back then, the Bucs went 3-5 after the bye week and were outscored 209-144 in those final eight games. This season, the Bucs have gone 6-1 heading into Sunday’s division playoff game against the Lions.

The Bucs have used 15 rookies at various points this season and lead the NFL in most snaps by first-year players at 5,660. To give you an idea of the breadth of that stat, the year after they won the Super Bowl the Bucs used only five rookies for 1,528 snaps.

Some of this was by design, some of it was necessity. With their inevitable salary cap woes, the Bucs had little choice but to keep a lot of younger, lower-salaried players on the roster. But it was also a chance to work some fresh faces into a lineup that had been veteran-heavy while Tom Brady was around.

“The maturity of all the guys, and the lumps we took, is really starting to come through now,” Bowles said. “It’s more so the mental toughness and understanding the grind. And I think that’s helped us out.”

Where are the rookies showing up? Everywhere, but particularly on defense.

• Diaby had one sack in his first eight NFL games but has gotten 6.5 in the next 10 games.

• Kancey missed a good chunk of the first four weeks with a calf injury but has since compiled 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.

Christian Izien, who made the team as an undrafted free agent, has played more than 700 snaps with cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean both dealing with minor injuries.

• Guard Cody Mauch, who has been in the starting lineup since the opener, gave up six sacks in his first 10 games. Since then, he’s allowed only two in eight games.

• Receiver Trey Palmer averaged fewer than 18 receiving yards per game through mid-December. In the last four games, his average is up to 48 yards, including a touchdown against the Eagles.

“You forget, we’ve (also) got a lot of (second-)year guys,” Bowles said. “Rachaad (White) is only in his second year, Logan (Hall) is in his second year. Zyon (McCollum) is in his second year. We’ve got a ton of guys.”

And Bowles, notably, has not been afraid to sit established players in favor of younger guys.

Wanting to be sure he stopped the Philadelphia ground game after giving up 201 rushing yards in Week 3, Bowles started K.J. Britt, 25, ahead of Devin White on Monday night because he’s stronger against the run. Ryan Neal, who started 13 games at safety in the regular season, did not play a single snap on defense against the Eagles, with McCollum, 24, and Izien, 23, getting reps at safety and nickel corner. Diaby, 24, has supplanted former first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka as a starting edge rusher.

The Bucs, incidentally, are not the only team using this formula. The Rams and Packers are right behind Tampa Bay in the amount of dead money taking up salary cap space, and they are also second and third behind the Bucs in most rookie snaps. Both also made the playoffs.

Of course, it’s not as easy as just checking birth certificates. You need to draft players with a high enough ceiling to be impact players, but also grounded enough to pick up a pro system quickly. A few years ago, the Bucs decided their priority was making sure they were drafting high-integrity players above all else.

“We’ve been picking later (in the draft) every year because we’ve been going to the playoffs recently,” said Mike Biehl, the team’s director of player personnel. “When you start targeting positions and drafting on need, you get in trouble. So I think we’ve stuck to that philosophy of best-available player, and when that matches up with a need on your team, that’s kind of a win-win situation. And I think we did a really good job of that.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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