TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have invested heavily in the draft and free agency to revamp a defense that Mason Foster feels is on the verge of taking a big step forward.
The Bucs nearly set a NFL record for passing yards allowed last season, so upgrading the secondary with the acquisition of Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson and rookie Johnthan Banks was a major priority this offseason.
Improving a sagging pass rush remains an objective, too. Coach Greg Schiano is trying to do that by getting more production out of recent high draft picks Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers.
Foster is an unheralded component of the restoration project, part of a group of starting linebackers that also includes Lavonte David and Dekoda Watson.
"Everybody is strong (throughout the defense). We don't mind being overlooked. It's one defense," said Foster, a third-year pro who started 31 of 32 games at middle linebacker over the past two seasons.
"I'm happy that we've got great safeties, great secondary, great defensive line — it all ties in together. They make our job easier, we make their job easier," Foster added. "I don't care who gets the notoriety, it's about winning. We are here to win. We want to continue to get better."
The former third-round draft pick out of Washington led all NFL rookies with 126 tackles in 2011 and is considered a good fit the attacking-style of defense second-year coach Greg Schiano brought to the Bucs a year ago.
Foster was second on the team with 104 tackles in 2012, when David had a standout rookie season and spearheaded a run defense that yielded a league-low 75.3 rushing yards per game.
The trade that brought Revis to Tampa Bay from the New York Jets this spring, the signing of Goldson in free agency and drafting of Banks in the second round have been the talk of training camp.
Foster, however, is quietly preparing for what he hopes will be a breakthrough season for himself — and the Bucs, who have not made the playoffs since 2007.
Schiano is encouraged by what he's seen in practice and expects Foster to get better in his second season in the scheme run by defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan.
"I thought Mason grew in this defense, and as he learned it and understood it better, he got better and better," Schiano said. "I thought he was a playmaker, I thought he did some good things, and I think this offseason he's made huge strides. I think he understands it umpteen times better. I think he reacts more quickly because of that."
David, a second-round draft pick in 2012, led the Bucs with 139 tackles as a rookie. With 20 tackles for loss, he ranked third in the league behind Houston's J.J. Watt and Denver's Von Miller.
"The sky is the limit for Lavonte," Foster said. "We try to push each other. I try to push him, he pushes me."
Despite being overshadowed by David, Foster felt he broadened his game last season.
In addition to having a knack for getting to the ball carrier and making plays, the 6-foot-1, 241-pounder has two career interceptions and a pair of sacks.
The 24-year-old feels he's become more of a student of the game and now he's "just trying to put it all together."
"He's got great instincts. ... But if you went out there and just played on instincts, you'd make a lot of mistakes because our defense, and I don't know any defense that isn't, is team-based," Schiano said.
"One guy relies a ton on the guy next to him. It's gap control. So if you have a guy who's just playing on instincts, yeah, he may get to the ball, but he'll also give up a home run. ... You don't want to take those instincts out of a guy, so within the scheme, you want to use those instincts. And I think Mason is getting better and better, and we need him to."