S Jermaine Phillips scored his first career touchdown on a 38-yard fumble return in the third quarter
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense trotted off the field after their final big stop on Sunday afternoon, it was difficult to pinpoint which man coming to the sideline was the defensive player of the game.
There were certainly many valid choices.
You could easily have gone with linebacker Derrick Brooks, the veteran heart and soul of the unit who played an inspired game Sunday, finishing with an interception, a forced fumble, two pass breakups and about a half-dozen perfectly-timed big plays.
Or how about safety Jermaine Phillips, who scooped up the fumble Brooks caused and returned it 38 yards for a score, the Bucs' third defensive touchdown in the first four weeks of the 2008 season?
Maybe you go with defensive end Gaines Adams, who tallied an interception for the second consecutive week, this one ending Green Bay's last-chance drive in the fourth quarter and essentially sealing the win for the Bucs.
But don't forget about linebacker Barrett Ruud, who also snagged a pick for the second straight game and recorded a sack of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the first of his career.
It's safe to say that when the Bucs post so many stellar individual performances, the overall results are going to be good.
They certainly were on Sunday. In a dominant performance, the Bucs' defense held the Packers to just 181 total net yards, including 28 rushing yards, forced those four turnovers and also tallied three sacks.
"It was good," Ruud said. "We got a lot of our goals accomplished. We had four turnovers and we scored, and that's the biggest thing. We accomplished a couple of our goals, but a couple big plays were really all we gave them. We've just got to look at about two plays, and other than that it was pretty good overall."
Touchdown catches of 25 and 48 yards by Greg Jennings, both on third-down plays, and a defensive score accounted for all of Green Bay's points. The Packers didn't set foot in Tampa Bay's red zone the entire day and averaged just 1.6 yards per run.
Fittingly, it was the veteran leader Brooks who set the tempo for the entire defense. Perhaps putting a nagging hamstring injury behind him, Brooks picked off Rodgers on the first play of the second quarter and set the Bucs up with excellent field position for a potential score. Six plays later, quarterback Brian Griese connected with tight end Alex Smith from nine yards out to even the score at seven.
"I just try to be as humble as I can," Brooks said. "I'm just thankful to be in the position to make the play. I've probably felt the best I've felt in weeks, with the hamstring. Today I felt as close to 100 percent as possible. Thank God it showed with me be being able to make some plays. Hopefully we can keep it going."
Ruud's interception also led to points for the Bucs. Later in the quarter, Rodgers overthrew his man on a deep ball over the middle. Dropping deep into coverage like he is often asked to do in the Bucs' Cover Two scheme, Ruud was waiting for the ball and made the easy pick. The Bucs ended up capitalizing on Ruud's interception with a Matt Bryant 36-yard field goal that gave the team the 13-7 lead it carried into halftime.
"It was just Cover Two and Ronde [Barber] did a good job taking away the underneath ball," Ruud said. "[Rodgers] tried to sort of squeeze one in and overthrew it and I was really just in the right place at the right time.
"This one was more a result of everybody else. I was back there playing deep in Cover-2 and that's usually a spot you don't make a lot of picks in. Credit the D-line, credit Ronde for blanketing his guy. He made a little bit of a bad throw and I was there."
Ruud also added his first career sack shortly before halftime, a satisfying moment for the fourth-year veteran.
"It was a blitz," Ruud said. "Usually that's the one Ronde tends to come free on, but they actually slid everything to Ronde and they kind of just missed me. Credit [Defensive Coordinator Monte] Kiffin for that one.
"I haven't had a sack before, so I needed that. People had been getting on me a little bit because I've been starting for a year-and-half now and hadn't got a sack, so it was good."
While Brooks and Ruud snagged interceptions that led to points from the Bucs' offense, Brooks and Phillips teamed up midway through the third quarter to score some points of their own.
After the Packers took over on offense following a Bucs punt, running back Ryan Grant took a handoff from Rodgers and ran to the right. Brooks read the play perfectly and blasted through the hole, putting his helmet right on the ball and jarring it free of Grant's grasp. Phillips, who was charging in to make sure the play was bottled up, picked up the loose ball and sprinted untouched 38 yards for the score, making it 20-7 in favor of the Bucs at that point.
"We were in a zone coverage, and we were talking about hustling and hitting all day," Phillips said. "Just keep hitting and good things are going to happen. I think it was Brooks who caused the fumble and I was just coming up there just to cap it off, like we're taught to do, like Monte preaches, and I saw the ball on the ground and I scooped and scored. That's something that we've been harping on in practice – when we get a fumble or an interception to take it the distance. We practice scoring, and then it happened in a game.
"I've been talking about scoring ever since I got in the league. I talked to my little man [son Jordan] earlier in the day. He always says a prayer for me and says, 'Dad, you've got to score.' So now when I call him, I get to tell him I scored for real. He's going to be excited. It was definitely a high point for us."
Last but not least, Adams' second career interception – and second in as many weeks – helped seal the Bucs' exhilarating victory. After Bryant had kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Bucs a 23-21 lead late in the game, Rodgers and the Packers took possession with one last chance to try and steal a victory.
With the clock ticking down towards the two-minute warning, Adams dropped into coverage while three other Bucs linemen applied pressure on Rodgers. Fellow defensive end Greg White laid a monstrous hit on the Packers' young passer and the resulting pass fluttered directly into Adams' waiting arms. Moments later, running back Earnest Graham would drive the final nail into the Packers' coffin with a one-yard touchdown run, but it was Adams' interception that essentially sealed Green Bay's fate.
"You've got to give that to the pressure that we had up front," Adams said. "I was just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time again. The three down linemen got pressure, hit the quarterback, and fortunately, like I said, I was in the right place at the right time."
So while it may have been tough to pick just one star performer from the Bucs' outstanding defensive showing Sunday, the unit's exceptional team effort came down to nothing more than playing the Tampa Bay brand of football, Phillips said.
"[Turnovers] do come in bunches," Phillips said. "Right now it's just our mentality – it's the way that we practice. They say that you'll play the way that you practice, and we practice on getting turnovers every day. That's what we talk about – scoring and getting the ball back.
"That's what defines us as a defense – the way we get the ball back and the way we score. That's our job – to score and get the ball back. We did a great job of that today."