LB Barrett Ruud snared an interception last Sunday for the second straight week
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has been hot as of late, racking up turnovers in bunches and helping out the offense by scoring points.
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has also been on a roll individually. Last Sunday against the Packers, the fourth-year veteran tallied his second straight game with an interception – after entering the season with just two career interceptions – and also notched his first sack as a pro on his second-quarter takedown of Aaron Rodgers.
Is it a coincidence that the defensive unit as a whole is hitting its stride in unison with Ruud, the man in the middle of it all? Perhaps, but Ruud says his recent run of splash plays is simply a product of staying steady within the Bucs' scheme.
"I'm doing normal stuff," Ruud said. "You just prepare the same way every week and sometimes you get chances to make picks and sacks, and sometimes you don't. It really shouldn't affect your play.
"But it does feel good, especially since we've won three straight. That's the key. It doesn't matter how good you play if you lose, because everybody's got something to work on then. If you win, that takes care of a lot of things."
Now in his second season as the Buccaneers' full-time starter at middle linebacker, Ruud is beginning to blossom as yet another ballhawk in a starting 11 that seems to be full of them.
Just take a look at how the Bucs defense has spread out its turnover bounty – seven different players have accounted for the team's nine takeaways. Phillip Buchanon, Sabby Piscitelli, Aqib Talib and Derrick Brooks have each tallied an interception, while Gaines Adams and Ruud lead the team with two picks each. Jermaine Phillips notched the Bucs' other turnover, recovering a fumble that was forced by Brooks.
While Brooks, Phillips and Buchanon are all lengthy NFL veterans, the other Bucs on that list are young players emerging as playmakers in their own rights. That healthy balance between veteran and youthful talent, with Ruud leading the group of rising stars, could leave the Bucs' defense in good hands for years to come.
Ruud admits that his continued development and increased comfort as a regular in the starting lineup has been a part of his hot start to the 2008 season, but a healthy body has also been key to his success thus far.
"I feel good," Ruud said. "I felt good last year too, but the biggest thing for me this year is health-wise I feel a little bit better. I've been able to prepare a little bit better. When you get full practices in, that helps you out.
"I also think being in my second year as a starter helps. You always learn a little bit more each year. I think I'll probably learn more next year when it's my third year. More experience always pays off, I think."
Now healthy for the most part after battling through some bumps and bruises last year, Ruud is excited to be filling up the stat sheet more and more with each passing game. While he's already tied his career high in interceptions – set last season with two – and recorded a sack for the first time ever, Ruud said he didn't place any sort of numerical expectations on himself coming into the 2008 season.
"Not really, not any individual goals," Ruud said. "Playing linebacker, it's too hard. You can't be like, 'I want 1,000 yards,' or something like that. Sometimes when you don't make a lot of tackles, that means your defense is not on the field very much, which is a good thing. My only goal is to improve."
As little attention as Ruud pays to the numbers, there will be plenty of talk about statistics leading up to the Bucs' next matchup. That's because Ruud and the defense will face their stiffest test to date on Sunday in the form of the No. 1-ranked Denver Broncos offense and their 435.5 yards-per-game average.
"It's a typical Mike Shanahan offense – it's really good," Ruud said. "He's a premier coach. Jay Cutler's in his second full year starting. He really has a good grasp of the offense and a great arm. They've got good players around him and they're the No. 1 offense. What else can you say?"
As formidable a challenge as the Denver offense will prove to be, the mindset for Ruud and his defensive teammates won't change – create turnovers and score points.
"That's our only goal," Ruud said. "We're not even worried about stops – we're worried about points. That's what we're trying to do. Hopefully we can keep it going. We've got a pretty good streak of scoring on defense, so hopefully we can keep it going."
And if Ruud can carry on the momentum that he has been able to build personally, in tandem with the defense's increasingly outstanding play, the results should be good.
"You get that ball rolling a little bit and you gain confidence," Ruud said. "Confidence, I think, improves everybody's play. The more momentum you can get, I think that's a powerful thing in this league."