Finding his carries mostly limited to the preseason, RB Rabih Abdullah has developed himself into an indispensable special teamer
Running backs, we are told, are not truly happy unless they have the ball in their hands on every play. Perhaps that explains the behavior this season of Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup running back Rabih Abdullah, who has yet to log a carry on offense.
Abdullah appears to have a grudge against anyone else holding the football. How else do you explain the fervor with which he has hunted down opposing ballcarriers on special teams this season?
The fourth-year running back has picked up the mantle of 'special teams ace' that in recent years has been passed around by such players as Jeff Gooch, Shelton Quarles and Don Davis. In 2001, Abdullah leads the team with eight kick-coverage tackles, all of them occurring in the last four games. He has repeatedly been the first man down the field on Buccaneer punts and kickoffs.
"I know there are plays out there to be made," said Abdullah, noting that Davis is gone, Gooch has been injured and Quarles plays almost exclusively on defense now. "Those guys, when they were in there, dominated at times. It was hard to get tackles with those guys in there sometimes. Now, there's more of an opportunity for other guys to step up and make plays. I felt like I was someone who could do that."
And the Bucs' coverage units have reaped the benefits. Tampa Bay ranks 11th in opponent punt return average and 22nd in opponent kickoff return average. That second number is not terribly impressive, but after a shaky start the Bucs' kickoff coverage unit has been superb. Over the last four games, during which Abdullah has usually been the lead dog downfield, the Bucs have allowed an outstanding average of 18.8 yards per kickoff return, with only one return longer than 24 yards.
Against Minnesota, Abdullah posted his second three-tackle day of the season, and his efforts played no small part in the momentum that built throughout the day for the Buccaneers in a runaway victory.
After the Bucs' first touchdown, Abdullah hustled downfield on the following kickoff and made a flying tackle on return man Dan Morgan, knocking the ball loose at the Vikings' 20-yard line in the process. Though Minnesota recovered at their own 24, the fired-up Buccaneer defense quickly forced a three-and-out. The Bucs then scored a second touchdown on the next possession and Abdullah once again stopped Morgan cold at the Vikings' 24 on the ensuing kickoff. Finally, after the Bucs' fourth touchdown of the half, Abdullah tripped up return man Nate Jacquet at the Minnesota 11, fighting through a block to make a diving leg tackle.
It's unusual to see one player make three kickoff stops in a single game, let alone during one half. And, though it was an emotional game for the Buccaneers, such an effort is the product of much more than adrenaline and desire.
"You have to be able to read what's going on while trying to run down there at top speed," said Abdullah of the intricacies of kick coverage. "A lot of assessments need to be made while you're running. It's not just a kamikaze, go-down-and-try-to-smash-people kind of thing. It's really a lot of information and knowledge you have to transfer during the play. There are lot of things that could be coming your way that you have to read – a double team, a wedge, are they cracking on you? At the same time, you have to be going full out."
That fact may never change the impression of the special teams ace as a madman in cleats and, certainly, it takes speed and aggressiveness to put kick-coverage know-how into action. As Joe Marciano, Abdullah's special teams coach, says, those are traits that cannot be coached.
"You have to be tough as all heck, you have to be able to run and you have to a good attitude towards it," said Marciano of the traits that make a good special teams player. "They have to be willing to learn. But you can't coach speed and toughness."
There are many things about special teams you can coach, and Marciano's portions of practice are notoriously detail-oriented. Abdullah has been soaking up Marciano's teachings for three years, as he had a woefully thin special teams background as the offensive star at tiny Lehigh University.
"He had no experience," said Marciano. "At Lehigh, he ran sprint-draw and toss-sweep and that was it. He didn't block, he didn't catch balls – that's all he did. You think, 'Okay, go play special teams. It's an easy adjustment.' But it's not."
Abdullah didn't need experience to make the team as a rookie in 1998. The only undrafted free agent to survive the final cut that year, Abdullah made it on the strength of an outstanding preseason performance at running back. With Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott in front of him, that was a ticket to 16 fall Sundays on the inactive list.
Special teams was his ticket off. In 1999 and 2000 he played in 27 games and made 32 kick-coverage stops. Tampa Bay coverage teams have traditionally been strong, and Abdullah helped maintain that strength, but he was rarely one of the players that drew attention for his special teams work.
Early last season, he was even deactived several times early in the season as the Bucs kept Aaron Stecker active to return kicks and chose Don Davis over Abdullah to cover them. Beginning with game six, however, he was active for the rest of the season, making 14 tackles over the last 11 games. He has continued to refine his techniques in the interim and is now a model for other young players in Marciano's stable.
"He runs low, hard and tough, lowers his shoulder pads," said Marciano, who sees a contributor far beyond the raw player that came into the league in '98. "It's a good training tape for everybody.
"He was a guy that could run, he's tough, so you had to stick with him and go through some things. You stuck with him because you knew he was going to get better by doing it. You don't get better by watching. Just like Gooch did – Gooch never played special teams in college. John Howell never did. But you know they have the qualities that make up a good special teamer, and they get better as time goes on, like Shelton did.
In 1999, Quarles set a team record with 31 special teams tackles. Abdullah is not on a pace to equal that mark, but he is already halfway to his own single-season high of 16. Playing the L5 position (the cover man just to the left of the kicker) on kickoffs and the 'personal protector' (the player in the backfield behind and to the side of the center) on punts increases his tackle opportunities, according to Abdullah, but he also gives Marciano's teachings a lot of the credit.
"I just enjoy playing special teams," he said. "I want to contribute and make a difference, make a few plays. This is my third year playing special teams and I've learned some things over the years. Joe's an excellent coach and he has really helped me develop the techniques of special teams. It's a product of that."
"It was something I was new to. Some things were a little awkward, and it just took awhile to get used to it and learn the positions. Since then, it's been a lot of fun."