LB Barrett Ruud beat a running back one-on-one to get this sack of QB Daunte Culpepper
For someone with a playing style as frenetic as Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Barrett Ruud's, it must be hard watching much of the game from the sidelines. But, during the regular season, such is life for the second-year player who backs up middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, the team's leading tackler last season.
It's something Ruud accepts but is never content with. After all, it's like he said last week near the end of the Buccaneers' training camp in Central Florida: Nobody plays to be second string. So when the Buccaneers gave Quarles the night off Saturday, Ruud took the field with the starting defense and made the most of his opportunity.
Maybe it was the charge of playing as a starter, or maybe it was just Ruud being Ruud, but the 2005 second-round selection seemed to be everywhere on the field during the first half of Saturday night's game against the Miami Dolphins. By the time his night was through (what amounted to a half of football), Ruud had racked up eight tackles, one sack, one pass defended and one forced fumble. Only a desperation penalty kept Ruud from having a two-sack night.
Ruud made the tackle on the game's second play, wrapping up Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers and holding him to a four-yard gain, but it was one drive later when Ruud brought the Raymond James Stadium crowd to its collective feet.
Blitzing on a first-and-10 from the Miami 25 yard-line, Ruud hit Daunte Culpepper in the midsection, separating the 265-pound quarterback from the football. Though the Dolphins recovered the fumble, they were put in a deep hole and forced to punt after a three-and-out.
"That was a blitz where I was one-on-one with the back, and that's kind of one of my favorite things to do, beat backs one-on-one," Ruud said. "I was able to make a counter move on him and come back. I think Ryan [Nece] was blitzing on the outside, and [Culpepper] stepped up and I got my hand on the ball when I was tackling him."
The next time the Dolphins' offense took the field, Ruud again made his presence known, this time hurrying Culpepper into an intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a third-and-21 from the Dolphins' nine-yard line. Ruud actually chased the big quarterback across the backfield and dragged him down from behind, but Culpepper's flung the ball away just before he hit the ground. It was a sack in every way except by name.
"It doesn't really look as good – you want the sack," Ruud said. "That's more exciting. The crowd doesn't really like intentional grounding as much, and, really, I don't either – but I'll take it."
And the Buccaneers will take more games such as the first two Ruud has turned in to kick off the preseason. With one full year under his belt, the 23-year-old linebacker seems to be developing a knack for the big play. Last week in the Bucs' preseason opener, he scooped up a loose ball on the Bucs' six-yard line that teammate Kalvin Pearson had knocked loose from New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, ending the scoring threat. A quarter later he teamed up with Steve Cargile on blitz that resulted in a sack.
"If you just sit there and don't do anything, you're going to be forgotten about," Ruud said. "You've always got to keep yourself fresh on people's minds. You've really got to go out and make plays when you get a chance. That's the only way you get an opportunity to play more."
So what's behind Ruud's recent big-play performances? Simply being more comfortable with the Buccaneers' defense, he says. During his rookie season, he admits he was thinking more about his defensive keys and assignments, but now he's playing at a faster tempo that he says is the product of "knowing the defense in and out."
"I feel I was ready to go last year, but I feel more confident this year," Ruud says. "You learn the intricacies a little more, the little tricks-of-the-trade. You know, those old guys, they keep teaching me."
Those "old guys" Ruud refers to are Pro Bowlers Quarles and Derrick Brooks – players he says are still working as hard today as they were as rookies. At least for tonight, those two battle-tested veterans turned over the reigns to the "young guy" – and watched him more than hold his own.
"It's a little bit different, I won't lie," said Ruud of being on the field from the opening snap. "But it's fun. It's fun being out there with those guys and hearing the way they talk. Sometimes it's a little bit different – the communication more than anything. Other than that, it's still playing football. You do feel like you've got to live up to a little bit more of a standard sometimes, but overall it was fun. It was fun the whole time I played out there.
"There are still things that I really didn't do that well, too. My tackling still isn't quite where I want it to be, and I was a little bit sloppy on a few – it was kind of just arm tackles, kind of just dragging guys down. That's not the way linebackers want to tackle. So there was still a lot that I wasn't happy with, but it was fun to be on the field and make a few plays."
As competitive as he is, Ruud knows his role, for now, is a supporting one. At the very least, he provides depth to a position vital to the Tampa 2 defense, and at the most, he stands ready to enter the game and have the impact he has thus far demonstrated he is capable of generating.
"It is tough at times because, like I said, everyone wants to be out there and everyone wants to be a number-one guy," Ruud said. "It is tough, but it's something where you just keep going to work because, like they say, you're always one play away. You can't get depressed about it. You've got to just keep working. If you're depressed, and all of a sudden you've got to go in and don't play well, you may not get another shot. So it's just one of those things that you have to keep working through."