T Donald Penn has learned quickly in his first few years in the NFL
For an offensive lineman, an easy way to know how well you're playing is to listen to the loudspeakers in the stadium for the name of the opponent lined up across from you.
Hear his name called out often? Probably not a good sign. That would mean he's getting past you and tallying sacks against your quarterback.
Never hear his name? You're probably doing a good job.
By those standards, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting left tackle Donald Penn came away relatively happy with how he performed in the team's opening day loss to the New Orleans Saints.
"I did pretty good," Penn said. "I didn't hardly hear Will Smith's name at all. I gave up a sack at the end of the game, so I was a little frustrated. I've got to hold the protection a little longer than I did, but I still have to build. That was the first game. I've got to get a lot better. I've got things to look at and get better on. I've got things to work on, but I felt pretty good. I wish we would've gotten the win, but I thought the whole group played good. I think we're coming together more and more."
Coming into the Bucs' Week Two matchup against the Falcons, things aren't about to get any easier for Penn. He'll have his work cut out for him as he tries to keep Atlanta's veteran pass rusher, John Abraham, off the PA announcer's lips.
Abraham is a nine-year veteran with 70.5 career sacks to his credit, but Penn has been studying diligently to prevent a repeat of some success Abraham was able to enjoy against him last season.
"I've been watching a lot of film," Penn said. "I gave up two sacks to him last year, one in each game. He's a good player. They say you get weaker when you get older, but it looks like he's getting better. He's back from his injury looking better than ever. I've got my work cut out for me. I'm just going to look for some clues to help me out on working on him, but he's one of the best."
Penn is just one of the cogs in one of the league's youngest, most potential-laden offensive fronts. With new addition Jeff Faine manning the center position and rookie Jeremy Zuttah filling in at right guard for the injured Davin Joseph, Penn still feels that the group is meshing well and progressing as a unit.
"I think we're doing good," Penn said. "I think we've got a lot more to look forward to. I think we did good in New Orleans, seeing how our backs were against the wall and we had to pass a lot. I think we held up pretty good. We've got to take some hits off the quarterback and give [him] some more time, but overall there's a lot to build on.
"Zuttah, he did a great job stepping in for Davin. I already know what he's going through because I had to do that last year. Zuttah did a great job, Faine is starting to fit in the mix as well, and [Jeremy] Trueblood and Arron [Sears] are picking up from where they left off last year. So I'm just trying to keep the intensity up and I think we're just going to get better."
As Penn says, if anyone knows what Zuttah is going through, it's him. After starter Luke Petitgout bowed out with a severe knee injury in the fourth game of the 2007 campaign, Penn – a relative unknown at that point after entering the NFL in 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State – went on to start every game the rest of the way and retain the spot in 2008.
Zuttah, on the other hand, was the Bucs' third round draft pick this year and was expected to use his versatility to provide depth at both guard spots and even at center behind Faine. But a foot injury to Joseph in the preseason thrust the youngster into the starting lineup, where he has found some kindred spirits in a young group of starters willing to help.
Although Penn was in Zuttah's shoes last year, he hasn't needed to impart much wisdom to the new starting right guard.
"I've hollered at him a little bit, but I really haven't tried to talk to him too much," Penn said. "He's got enough people talking to him, so I just try to let him know that this is his opportunity. I've been there before. Coming in, he probably didn't think he was going to play this much; he probably thought he was going to be a backup. So I just told him, 'You've got to be ready all the time. You're going to love playing in front of the lights. It's a lot better playing in front of the lights than sitting on the side watching.' He did a great job in New Orleans. He's a good, smart young kid and he listens. That's the key. I think he's going to be fine."
Taking a younger player under his wing shows a high level of maturity for Penn, only in his third year in the league himself. Another promising trait Penn has displayed is an ability to block out distractions.
The winds of change have been swirling around the Bucs' practice facility with the season just underway, as Brian Griese has been named the starting quarterback against the Falcons in place of Jeff Garcia. But for Penn, it doesn't matter who he's protecting – his effort and determination remain the same.
"I'll block for whoever's back there," Penn said. "Garcia's got to get healthy. That's the main thing. Brian Griese is a great quarterback. He's shown it through his years and in the preseason. So I'm going to block the same no matter who's back there. Griese is a good quarterback and I feel comfortable with both of them."
Penn's pass blocking will be the area of his game that will keep Griese's jersey clean, but it's the other side of the game that gets his heart rate going – run blocking. The Bucs were able to get huge holes and chunks of yardage running the ball against the Saints, but the game situations forced them to throw, rather than stick with the ground attack as much as they would have liked.
Penn, for one, is hoping things go differently this week and that he'll get more of an opportunity to line it up and play some smash-mouth football.
"If you ask any lineman what they'd rather do, pass block or run block, they're always going to say run block," Penn said. "We love to run block, but we wish we could've had some more opportunities to do it in New Orleans. We felt we were getting them off the ball, double-teaming them and stuff. But like I said, we're going to run whatever [Head] Coach [Jon] Gruden calls. This week we're going to see. The game plan is going to be the same – we go into every game wanting to run the ball. Things happened different where we couldn't last week, but we go into every game wanting to run the ball."
Sunday's contest will also give Penn and the rest of his teammates the first chance to play in front of their home fans in the 2008 campaign. That, combined with a matchup against a second straight division opponent, has Penn excited to get out there and play the game.
"It's tough," Penn said. "You want to start every year off with a win. We didn't start off with a win last year and we went on a three-game winning streak after that. But Atlanta, they showed their butts off last week. They're a good team. They made a big jump from the year before, kind of like we did last year. It's a big game, because you don't want to start the season 0-2. That's hard to come back from. Teams have, but it's hard. So we want to go in there this win, and we're at home too in front of our home crowd, so it's going to be tough."
And when Penn hears his name called out over the loudspeakers before the game as the starting lineups are announced, he might hear a few extra special cheers among the 65,000 Bucs fans in attendance.
"It's going to be real fun," Penn said. "I've got my mom and my sister coming and I haven't seen them in awhile. It's going to be real good. We've got some of the greatest fans in the NFL, period. Raymond James Stadium is a lovely stadium. I love playing there."