DE Jimmy Wilkerson has made himself known to opposing quarterbacks in recent weeks
Defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson had a grand total of one sack in his five-year NFL career prior to joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent this offseason, and that lone sack was actually composed of two half sacks as a Kansas City Chief, one in 2004 and another in 2007.
Wilkerson has dwarfed those numbers in his first year as a Buccaneer. In Tampa Bay's dominating 38-20 win over the Detroit Lions last Sunday, he had a career day to go along with what is shaping up to be a career year — two full sacks, bringing his season total to four.
For a man who has tallied four times as many sacks in 11 games in 2008 as he did in 72 career games prior to this year, where did this outburst of pass-rushing ability come from? According to Head Coach Jon Gruden, the talent has been there all along, it was just a matter of Wilkerson getting a chance to shine.
"We'll he's been given an opportunity to play," Gruden said. "He didn't get a chance to get on the field much in Kansas other than special teams, which is a credit to Rich Bisaccia, Bruce Allen, and those guysÃ¢â'¬Â¦they spotted him on special teams, really. We knew he had some versatility when we did see him play. We saw him play end and tackle, but basically he's just been given an opportunity to get on the field and he has good stuff now.
"He's got good hands. He's got good quickness. He's got a range of moves. He's a versatile player. He's a great kid and he's got tremendous effort. We're really proud of him, really happy for him because he's one of our hardest working players."
Wilkerson agrees that he has seen a greater opportunity to play this year but insists that the work he puts in behind the scenes hasn't changed a bit.
"I definitely think I'm getting more of an opportunity than I was in Kansas City," Wilkerson said. "For me in Kansas City, it was all about worrying about getting on the field. Here, I don't have to worry about that. I know I'm going to get on the field. Now I've just got to go out there and produce. If I'm producing, I get to stay on the field longer. If you don't produce, and that's with every team, you're not going to be out on the field because they feel like you're not helping the team if you're not helping the defense out. I've just got to stay on top of my game to help this defense perform out there.
"If I keep going, working hard, practicing hard, staying consistent in what I'm doing, then it's whenever coach throws me out there. I'm going to play just like I've been playing every week. I don't go into games thinking I'm going to get 20 snaps or I'm going to get five snaps. When I'm out there I'm just thinking I'm going to play one snap at a time."
The versatility Gruden referenced is perhaps Wilkerson's most useful trait. With the ability to rush the passer from any position along the defense line — in addition to the special teams role he plays — Wilkerson can be used on any down, in any situation.
"I'm having a lot of fun with it," Wilkerson said of his versatile role. "It's something I'm used to doing. Back in Kansas City, I was been playing both defensive tackle and defensive end. It's just really all about learning the plays and feeling comfortable running them."
Wilkerson certainly looks at ease in the Bucs' scheme, and his stats would back that up. He gave much of the credit to such Tampa Bay coaches as Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin and Defensive Line Coach Todd Wash for his smooth transition to a new system.
"I'm very comfortable," Wilkerson said. "I'm real comfortable with the plays, the play calls that coaches Kiffin and Wash throw out there. I think week-in and week-out by practicing on those plays for hours and hours at a time, of course it's going to make you more comfortable. I'm not thinking as much out there on the field, so I can adjust to what I see as far as the offensive line and what they're doing, or whether it's a run or pass, things like that."
As instrumental as an expanded role and helpful coaches have been to Wilkerson's success in 2008, he couldn't forget his teammates on the defensive line and the attitude that they bring to the table.
"I'm just having fun," Wilkerson said. "I feel like a rookie all over again. Being around these guys, it's a great group of guys, the defensive linemen, and to have guys like that, it kind of takes a lot of stress off you as far as who you're going up against and vice versa. I get a good rush at defensive tackle and it takes some pressure off of Gaines [Adams] or [Greg] White, so I think we're molding more together now that we're spending all these weeks together. Going into this game, we've got things we want to do against the Saints and we've just got to go out there and practice them and really key in on meshing together."
Sunday's matchup against New Orleans will certainly be a big test for Wilkerson and the Bucs' defense. Buccaneer defenders know they have their work cut out from them after Saints quarterback Drew Brees racked up 343 passing yards and three touchdowns against them in a Week One defeat. No Buccaneer opponent has thrown for anywhere near that many yards since opening day.
"I think we got our swagger back," Wilkerson said. "We can't be overconfident, because we've still got a lot of games left ahead of us, so our main thing is to stay focused, continue to be consistent in what we're doing, the little things — tackling, doing our assignments, individually and collectively. When we do that, we are a good defense."
"Playing in the first game, that wasn't us. We weren't firing on all cylinders and we didn't do a lot of things right. I think we're going to learn from that. We're going to watch the film and correct the things that we messed up in that game against them the first time. We're going to be more prepared. I think this defense, we've really come together and we've really grown together. We know and understand what it takes to be a good defense."
As excited as he is by the chance to go up against Brees and the Saints' top-ranked offense, and as satisfying as the resurgent 2008 season he's been able to put together thus far has been, Wilkerson isn't resting on his laurels. He's got even bigger and better plans in mind for himself.
"I think I'm my biggest critic," Wilkerson said. "If people see that I'm playing well, in my eyes I don't see that I'm playing well, even though I may have had two sacks or two tackles. It's the other things that I see that other people don't see. I believe that I could have had four or five sacks out there last week. There were a lot of plays left out there that could've been easily done. But going back, I'm going to look at the film and just go out there and practice and correct all the little mistakes that I've made and try to bounce back from that."