At 23 years old, Cody Grimm is the youngest starter in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary. On Sunday in San Francisco, Grimm set the tone for his entire crew on the 49ers' first play from scrimmage, rushing up from his safety spot to plug a gap in the line and stand running back Frank Gore up before he could gain a single yard.
Three quarters later, the furious defensive effort Grimm had kicked off with his solo tackle was still on display, and the 49ers still hadn't scored. Ronde Barber, easily the oldest starter in the Bucs' secondary – and at 35 the oldest player on the team, period – made sure that shutout stood with his own big play, picking off quarterback Troy Smith near the left sideline and returning the ball 29 yards to the 49ers' six.
One might have expected Barber to slow down in his 14th NFL season. One might have expected Grimm to be overwhelmed by the starting role into which he was thrust almost immediately after Tanard Jackson's suspension. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, one would have been wrong on both counts.
Left cornerback Aqib Talib is clearly a rising star in the NFL and imported strong safety Sean Jones has been exactly the sort of steady presence the Bucs wanted at the position. But Tampa Bay wouldn't be sixth in the NFL in pass defense – the usual neighborhood for the great veteran secondaries of the team's past – without the sound efforts being turned in by Barber and Grimm.
Barber's strong season probably shouldn't be a surprise. He is a highly-motivated professional who prepares diligently and knows how to keep himself in optimal shape. He's playing pretty much just as he did in his prime, but with perhaps more varied responsibilities. The Bucs have used him all over the secondary this season – in the slot, on the outside, in the middle of the field in a deep safety type role. He's second on the team in both tackles (69) and interceptions (three), tied for first in passes defensed (eight) and fourth in tackles for loss (four).
"He's playing with high energy and playing at a high level," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He's on that 100-tackle, six-pick Ronde Pro Bowl type of performance. The name, the character, everything – he's certainly our leader on our football team. He's the leader by example. He's dominating out there on the field."
Morris gave Barber a game ball after the San Francisco shutout, though he said he's often reluctant to do so because he wants to wait for yet another miracle moment from the accomplished cornerback. In a way, he got one on Sunday, as Barber's late-game pick was the 40th of his career, making him the first player in NFL history to record at least 40 interceptions and at least 25 sacks.
"You want to make him do something unbelievable," said Morris. "But then you look at the stat sheet every week and he has nine tackles, he has one PBU, he has an interception or he has a forced fumble or a he has a sack or just some stat that you can't explain. You've got to give him credit for what he's doing. Guys who put themselves in position to make that many plays deserve it and he certainly does that every week."
The Pro Football Hall of Fame called to request Barber's jersey and gloves from the game in order to commemorate that 40/25 achievement. His own Hall of Fame candidacy is steadily gaining steam, though that decision is still well off in the future.
Grimm has played 193 fewer games than his potentially Canton-bound teammate, but he's already following Barber's path in terms of exceeding expectations. A former linebacker at Virginia Tech, Grimm lasted until the seventh round of the 2010 draft before the Bucs made him the 210th selection overall. He was expected to contribute on special teams right away, but it's fair to say the Bucs didn't envision him starting at free safety by Week Three.
Had he known Grimm would play so well so soon, said Morris, "I wouldn't have drafted him in the seventh round.
"He's absolutely playing lights-out football. He's a tone-setter right now for us. He's coming into the box, he's doing everything he can with his frame. It's fun to watch. He's a ballhawk. He had an interception the week before that we had a pass interference call on. He's where he's supposed to be. He does what he's supposed to do. He doesn't make many minuses. He's smart, he's sharp, he can adjust. He is absolutely fun to watch."
Grimm has risen to fifth on the team's tackle chart, with 57, and he has two interceptions, one of which he returned for a critical touchdown in Cincinnati in his second career start. Even so, his game in San Francisco might have been his most impressive yet. Grimm finished that game with eight tackles and was an absolute force around the line of scrimmage, helping hold Gore to 13 yards on nine carries.
"He's coming down into the box and making plays," said Morris. "He's making smart plays, he's making all the routine plays, he's making all difficult ones. He's flying around for us. He's become an inspiration for everyone. He's playing wise beyond his years. He's the definition of our young football team. He walks around here like he was our first-round pick. The guys treat him like he was our first-round pick."
With 10 minutes left in the Buccaneers' 21-0 win at San Francisco this past Sunday, Tampa Bay got a first down at the 49ers' two-yard line after a Ronde Barber interception and a subsequent defensive holding call in the end zone. Immediately, a buzz started on the Bucs' sideline and in the huddle.
If it was ever going to happen, this was probably the time.
"It" was a trick play on offense, with left tackle Donald Penn moving one spot down the line, to where a tight end would normally be, and declaring himself an eligible receiver. It was a gambit the team had been working on at One Buc Place for weeks, but lots of trick plays never graduate past the practice field.
But here the Bucs were at the two, already winning by two touchdowns and having spent much of the second half establishing a power running game. The obvious play call would be to run 250-pound LeGarrette Blount into the teeth of the defense and try to power the ball down those two short yards.
And, in fact, that's what the Bucs decided to do on first down. Quarterback Josh Freeman admitted after the game, half-jokingly, that a part of him was hoping the Blount run wouldn't work so they could call Penn's play on second down.
Blount's first-down run didn't work; however, it did gain one of the two yards, and at that point Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson – called "Olie" by his players and fellow coaches – felt it made more sense to run Blount one more time. This time 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes timed his leap just right and met the Buccaneer back in midair at the top of the pile. No touchdown.
So the Bucs took a timeout. After the break, Penn told the officials he was eligible and he lined up at the left end of the line. Freeman took the snap and faked a handoff to Blount, and Penn came out of his stance and blocked down on the defensive end, pushing him towards the middle of the line. That was the ruse, and Penn held it long enough for it to be believable, then suddenly separated and sprinted out to his left. No 49ers followed and Freeman turned and threw a short pass that Penn caught for his first career touchdown (he did have one previous 15-yard catch on a deflected pass in 2009.
Penn's 10 teammates on the field and the rest of the Buccaneers on the sideline celebrated madly, not the least because the 305-pound linemen actually had to go low to catch a pass that Freeman short-armed a little bit. It was more shoestring catch than a cradled football against the chest.
Penn, who grew up playing basketball, said the catch was no fluke and that his soft hands are for real.
"Oh, it's legitimate," he said with a big smile. "I played basketball my whole life. That was my love. Those hands are legit."
Despite the success of the play, Penn is not likely to become the next Mike Vrabel. The linebacker for the Chiefs, and formerly for the Patriots, has 10 career catches, all of them for touchdowns, and he got his most recent one earlier this season. There are a lot more options for the Chiefs' coaching staff when putting Vrabel on offense; for Penn, it's going to be hard to fool the defense again with the same play.
Still, it worked this time, and he now has an NFL memory he'll never forget. He's also got the football as a memento, though it's currently in the possession of his father. He wants to get it back as soon as possible.
"I was just happy I got the opportunity," said Penn. "Olie believed me, and it was really fantastic. I loved it."
The high-profile play also had another unintended consequence that Penn has been enjoying since late Sunday afternoon, when he got back to the Bucs' locker room at Candlestick Park and found his text and voice-mail inboxes packed with new messages.
"One good thing that came out of this was some of the old friends that you don't talk to, they hit you up and it's good to get back in contact with them," he said. "I had a couple e-mails from guys I played college ball with, and I haven't talked to those guys forever. So it's good. Got some old friends back in my life."
The Buccaneers made it through training camp and the first few weeks of the season with a pleasantly small number of injuries. After their late September bye, however, the Bucs' luck changed and they were forced to deal with a rash of strains and sprains, most notably to the likes of Jeff Faine, Earnest Graham, Sammie Stroughter, Brian Price, Kareem Huggins, Jeremy Trueblood and Kyle Moore.
Injured reserve did eventually claim Price and Huggins, but as Thanksgiving approaches the Bucs may be able to start the playoff stretch run with a relatively healthy roster.
As the practice week began on Wednesday, the Bucs had just two players they needed to hold out: Moore (shoulder) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). Moore has missed the last two games and three of the last six with his injury, but Winslow has appeared in every game and is often given Wednesday off as a precautionary measure.
Only three other players are listed on the Bucs' first injury report of the week: Stroughter (foot), Trueblood (knee) and linebacker Quincy Black (ankle). All three were able to participate fully in practice on Wednesday (albeit in a workout run at walk-through speed) and none of their injuries are new. In fact, Stroughter and Trueblood both played in last Sunday's win at San Francisco and avoided any injury setbacks.
Black appears to be close to returning after missing the last two games with the ankle sprain he suffered in Atlanta in Week Nine. Adam Hayward and rookie Dekoda Watson have filled in very well during those two games, both Tampa Bay wins, but the team is eager to get the playmaking Black back on the field. The team's second-leading tackler before he got hurt, Black is the only player on the team who has already made a mark in each of the eight statistical categories the Buccaneers track on defense: tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback pressures, interceptions, passes defensed, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
Black will regain his starting spot when he is cleared to play, though the two games of work for Hayward and Watson helped the Bucs learn a little bit about their linebacker depth.
"Quincy's playing really well, so I'm not going to remove him from his spot," said Morris. "But those other guys, they showed they could go out there and play. So I guess I'll be creative with my packages and do some things with those guys. They deserve the opportunity to go out there and do a couple things. You can look forward to still seeing those guys from time to time."