DT Chris Hovan has been an impressive force against the run this season
Chris Hovan may have sported long, flowing hair and wild face paint in his early NFL days with the Minnesota Vikings, but the Hovan who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is about as straightforward and uncontroversial as they come when facing reporters in the locker room.
His hair is cut tight, and even though his arms are covered in tattoos he doesn't seem interested in any sort of individualistic self-promotion. Most of his comments circle around the subjects of not resting on past achievements and the importance of following one's assignments within the defensive scheme.
"It's the NFL, it's what have you done for me lately," said Hovan recently. "And I haven't done anything lately."
Mind you, this particular comment was made two days after Hovan's gritty, productive performance in Carolina had been one of the main reasons the Bucs were able to shut down the same Panthers offense that had strafed them for 34 points five weeks earlier. That game, in turn, was just seven days after another particularly strong outing for Hovan in Baton Rouge, in a 10-3 win over New Orleans.
And the Saints game was just two days after Head Coach Jon Gruden had stopped in a hallway at One Buccaneer Place, pointed to Hovan sitting in the defensive line meeting room and told a passerby, in so many words, "Now there's a guy who needs to have more stories written about him."
Hovan may be looking to provide weekly evidence that he is a valuable performer in the NFL, but he has long since sold Gruden on that fact. There are other factors involved, to be sure, but it's no coincidence that Tampa Bay's run defense – which was the focus of intense offseason scrutiny – has improved from 19th in the league last year to fifth this year. A former "three-technique" tackle with the Vikings, he has stepped into the more workmanlike nose tackle position for the Bucs and made the team significantly more stout up the middle.
"Hovan's built different, structure-wise [then previous Buccaneer nose tackle]," said Gruden. "The others were good, everybody was good. We've always had good nose players here. But Hovan's a little bit bigger guy. Here's a guy who's been an under tackle in Minnesota, and his athleticism for a big man is exceptional, and his stamina is really good. Those are things that I think he adds to us."
Hovan quickly became a star for the Vikings after being drafted in the first round in 2000. He had 11.5 sacks in 2001-02, was an All-Pro choice by Sports Illustrated in 2002 and had basically replaced Warren Sapp as Brett Favre's defensive-line foil within the NFC North. Hovan fell out of favor in Minnesota over the next two years, however, and was obviously set to move on after the 2004 season.
One might Hovan to look for an opportunity to prove he could still be a star at his original position, under tackle. That spot in the defensive front run by both the Vikings and the Bucs is generally freed up to rush the passer more often and has to face double-team blocks less frequently. However, Hovan instead accepted the challenge of playing the nose in Tampa, alongside under tackle Anthony McFarland, himself a former nose tackle.
"[On the] nose, you don't have as much free grass as the three-technique, but it's still just technique," said Hovan. "It's something that I wanted to come down and show that I could do. My knock was that I couldn't play double-teams, so I wanted to come down here and prove to everybody that I could play the double-team. It's still a work in progress. I still have to go out on the practice field today, tomorrow, leading up to the game on Saturday, and I've got to get better. Every day I've got to get better."
Hovan couldn't have looked too much better than he did on Sunday against the Panthers. He made a string of big tackles around the line of scrimmage, including consecutive stops on power back Stephen Davis on third-and-two and fourth-and-two early in the third quarter.
The Bucs were leading 10-0 at the time and the Panthers had come out strong in the second half, driving into Buccaneer territory on their first possession. The last two snaps of the drive came from the 39, and a first down at that point would have put the Panthers in very good position to get at least a field goal. Instead, the Bucs took over with good field position and used it to tack on a field goal of their own, increasing the lead to 13-0.
Hovan was a menace around the line of scrimmage all day, often penetrating and then moving laterally down the line to hit the Panther ballcarrier in the back or the side. His stats at the end of the game weren't overwhelming – five solo tackles – but that is often the case for a nose tackle, even after a dominant outing. Better to note that, after the Panthers' first series, they had just 52 rushing yards the rest of the game.
Hovan's stats for the whole season are also not eye-popping – 51 tackles, one pass defensed, one fumble recovery – but Gruden knows how well his new nose tackle has played. In fact, he has already mentioned his hope that Hovan, who signed a one-year contract with the Bucs, will be back in 2006 and beyond.
"He's a hard guy to block," said Gruden. "He's relentless and he's big and he's mean as hell. He's a guy who we like and another guy who we hope to re-sign on our team at the end of this season. He's really brought another – I don't know what the word is – he's really brought some stuff to that group in there. His charisma, his leadership, his work ethic is top-notch. And he's a good player, also."
Hovan, however, still feels as if there is a lot of unfinished business this season, both for himself and for the team.
"I still want to prove myself," he said. "What the organization decides to do…that would be great. But I'm still having to go out and prove myself week-in and week-out. Like I said before, it's the NFL. It's what have you done for me lately and right now I haven't done anything lately. I get to do it on Saturday. I just think week-in and week-out, to be a true champion, you have to go out and prove yourself on the field."
Hovan may have added charisma and leadership to the Bucs' defense, but he wouldn't have maintained a spot on it for long if he hadn't bought into the discipline with which that group conducts itself on the field. Perhaps he would like to go straight upfield more often, rush the passer and seek out the glamour stat for defensive linemen – perhaps all of the defensive linemen would like to do so – but he knows he will be held accountable.
"If they break a big play, the guys will know what happened, who was out of their gap, who tried to make a play instead of just doing their job and staying in their gap," said Hovan. "Everyone's got a set assignment, everyone just has to go out and do their job. That's what makes this defense work so well."
Hovan, who averaged almost four sacks a season over the past four years, has none so far as a Buccaneer. But that doesn't mean he has failed to put pressure on the quarterback this season, or to free up his teammates to do the same. The Bucs' defense is ranked second in the league overall, and Hovan has been a big part of that success.
"Yeah, stop the run, because our pass defense is great here," said Hovan of the first thing he was charged with when arriving in Tampa. "They just wanted to put the emphasis on stopping the run. But, still, you've got to pass-rush, too. This isn't just a one-sided thing with this defensive line. We get paid to stop the run and we get paid to rush the quarterback, so we've got to make sure we're doing both week-in and week-out."
Again, Hovan's chosen pronoun is "we" and not "I." He has fit in nicely with the Bucs' already well-established defensive line and has benefited from that closeness. He also feels comfortable projecting his "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" concept on the whole group, as the playoff race comes down to the wire and big plays become a must on defense.
"This is a very tight-knit group," said Hovan. "Guys really look out for each other. Off the field, guys hang out and have a real genuine caring about each other. We just want everyone to do well and our goal is to go to Detroit. Our first step is New England and then we're going to take it from there, but ultimately we want to be playing for the championship."