Yet another Young Buc is stepping into the limelight.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris revealed on Thursday that rookie Cody Grimm would be the team's new starter at free safety. Grimm replaces Tanard Jackson, who has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
Grimm, a seventh-round pick out of Virginia Tech, is the third member of Tampa Bay's 2010 draft class to assume a starting position, the second on defense. First-round pick Gerald McCoy starts at defensive tackle (though he has actually opened the first two games at right defensive end) and fourth-round wide receiver Mike Williams is the Bucs' number-one split end.
Tampa Bay's defense ranks third in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 21 points during a 2-0 start, and the Bucs' coaching staff is confident that Grimm can help them maintain that high level of play. The rookie safety showed signs of being a significant playmaker during the preseason, and he has been a standout tackler on special teams since the regular season began.
"Cody has gone out there and excelled," said Morris. "He's played well. He's been impressive in all his opportunities. He's been a guy that's played cool and calm and collected. His demeanor, his approach to the game…I can keep going on about the things that have prompted me to play Cody and have a lot of confidence in him out there. He's earned his opportunity and we really feel good about putting him out there, giving him a shot and seeing what he can do."
The Buccaneers also gave consideration to their two other reserve safeties, Sabby Piscitelli and Corey Lynch. Piscitelli started in 2009, but at strong safety, where he has continued to work in 2010 as a reserve and where he remains a valuable player for the team.
"We definitely thought about Sabby," said Morris. "He's played over there [at free safety] a little bit. He's the backup strong safety and he would have definitely gone in if anything had happened to Sean. He's been over there since the beginning of the season. We've been working Lynch and Cody over at free behind Tanard. He's been working mainly strong and he'll still be a significant part of what's going on from here on out."
Though Jackson is only 25, the switch to the 23-year-old Grimm still manages to make a young defense even younger. Tampa Bay's starting 11 has an average age of 25.9 years old and includes six players who are 24 years or younger (Grimm, McCoy, Aqib Talib, Geno Hayes, Roy Miller and Kyle Moore).
However, though he's inexperienced at the NFL level, Grimm is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Russ Grimm and does not seem overwhelmed by his new assignment.
"I'm used to playing a lot in college in front of big crowds, and in preseason games," he said. "It's really not that nerve-wracking. I feel like I'm pretty comfortable with our scheme and what we've got going on. I've just got to prepare like I'm the starter and if my number's called I'll be ready to go."
His teammates also have confidence in him after seeing what he's been able to do since the preseason games began in August.
"Cody's been balling," said Black. "We haven't seen him on defense this [regular] season but he's made some great plays on punt, some things that make you open your eyes and see that he's not playing like a rookie. That's what we're looking for."
Starting strong safety Jones, another new addition to the Bucs' defense as a free agent acquisition this past spring, does not expect the switch in the lineup to affect how the rest of the players in the secondary go about their jobs. In other words, the more established players on the field won't be tempted to divert some of their attention to their own assignments away to compensate for the rookie's inexperience.
"No, not at all," said Jones. "We've been putting in work since April, May, the whole summer, so we have a lot of confidence in Cody. He's been making plays since he's been here. I'm excited about him getting this opportunity to go out there and show what he can do. We're just all going to rally around him and just go out there and make plays and try to get a win."
The first test for the secondary with Grimm in place will be a difficult win, against the 2-0 Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. One of only two matchups of undefeated teams this weekend (also Green Bay-Chicago on Monday night), the Bucs-Steelers game is a big one for the home team, which is trying to start a season 3-0 for just the fifth time in franchise history. A win over the Steelers could help establish the young Buccaneers as a legitimate playoff contender.
Obviously, a suspended player and a sudden change in the lineup presents a challenge for the Buccaneers during this important week. Every team faces such challenges during the course of a 16-game season, however; the visiting Steelers, for instance, are being forced to plumb their quarterback depth after the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger and, now, the injury to replacement starter Dennis Dixon. Veteran Charlie Batch will get the call Sunday against the Buccaneers.
"[We're] a mentally tough team," said Morris. "This is no different than any other situation you deal with as a team. You've got to go ahead and deal with it. You've got to be mentally tough. It's all about your leaders. We're playing a great example this week – they're without their starting quarterback and they're 2-0. They're winning and they're coming to play us and they're still going to show up. Fair game for everybody."