Fortunately for the Bucs, Robinson already possesses the physical run-stopping attributes of a strong safety
Turns out the Buccaneers will have two new safeties on Sunday.
Well, not exactly two new players, but both safety positions in the Bucs' highly-ranked defense will feature a new body against the Buffalo Bills. Damien Robinson, who has started the team's last 27 games at free safety, will slide over to strong safety and second-year player Dexter Jackson will make his first career start at free safety.
All of this shuffling is in response to the shoulder injury suffered by S John Lynch against Chicago last Sunday. While Lynch is listed as questionable on the team's injury report, Head Coach Tony Dungy is proceeding with the team's week of planning as if the Pro Bowl strong safety will be unavailable.
"We're planning on not having John," said Dungy. "He hasn't been ruled out yet, but I would rather go that way than to think that he's going to be in there and bank on that all week, then all of a sudden he can't go. I would say he's doubtful right now, and we're planning on him not being in."
This maneuver is possible for Tampa Bay because both Jackson and Robinson are versatile players that can fill either role. Robinson, especially, has always been considered a hard hitter for the free safety position, which makes him somewhat of a natural for the more rugged strong safety slot. Robinson also understands that his new position (for Sunday, at least), is crucial to what the Bucs' defense tries to accomplish each week.
"It's very important," said Robinson. "I know a lot of times, they try to run away from John. We try to put them into predicaments and situations where we disguise to make them either run to John or run away from John but into the map of the defense. Basically, I've just got to step up and make some plays to hopefully get the same effect, make them run away from me when we've got eight men in the box. Then, when we drop back, I've got to be able to cover."
The Bucs are counting on Robinson's ability to do just that, because they aren't planning to alter their approach in order to cover Lynch's absence. The strong safety is going to remain the player with the most critical two-way role between stopping the run and defending the pass.
"What we do isn't going to change," said Dungy. "He's obviously very good at it, but what we do is what we're going to have to do. What we lose is an experienced guy that's done it for five years."
Jackson and Robinson got a preview of their new roles last Sunday after Lynch was injured. Robinson immediately noticed the difference in the style of play from one position to the other.
"The biggest difference is the physical part," said Robinson. "You're up there taking on offensive linemen, taking on fullbacks, things like that. Back at free, you're chasing down long balls and helping over the top. I love (the physical aspect of) it.
"A couple of times I got in there with those offensive linemen and I'm wrestling. I'd come to the sideline and tell John, 'Man, I don't know how you do it.' I told him I'm going to have to pump a little more iron this week, do a couple pushups and go out here and take on these offensive linemen."
On the other hand, the tandem of Jackson and Robinson might be so close to interchangeable that the middle of the Bucs' defense becomes even more difficult to predict. Jackson has even played some cornerback for Tampa Bay at times, so his cover ability is not in doubt.
"It's kind of positive for us, because me and Dex are both athletically able to cover, and I think it's going to help out," said Robinson. "Both of us are able to cover man-to-man, cover tight ends, so I think it's going to be more difficult for the offense."
Robinson was relaxed in the Bucs' locker room on Wednesday, perhaps because this isn't a radical new idea for him. Tampa Bay commonly rotates players during practices, so Robinson has had his share of practice in Lynch's spot this season and Jackson has run extensively with the first team at free safety. Though he ostensibly has a week to get ready to fill Lynch's spot, Robinson believes he is already prepared.
"I pretty much prepare each week for it," he said. "(Defense Coordinator) Monte (Kiffin) normally has me do strong safety plays, just like we bring Dexter in to do some free safety plays. You never know what injury situation is going to happen, so we have to be prepared."
That doesn't mean Robinson or his teammates relish the thought of playing without Lynch, last year's NFC starter at strong safety in the Pro Bowl. Lynch brought many things to the table, including leadership, experience, intimidation and fire.
"We're going to miss his leadership and, of course, his aggressive tackling," said Robinson. "But we can't let the wheels fall off. We've got to keep it going. These are very crucial games that we've got coming up and we've got to be able to step up and make the play."
Robinson and Dungy have no doubt that the Bills, who possess the league's 10th-best passing attack, are going to test the Bucs' secondary a little harder with Lynch out of the lineup.
"I'm sure they will, but that's kind of what you have to do," said Dungy. "Other guys have gone in there like that and done good jobs. We have a lot of confidence in them."
Robinson, however, doesn't see it as a major change in strategy. "I thought they were coming after us anyway," he said. "We can't go into this game looking at it any differently. I just have to step up and play strong, and play to the best of my ability. We have to do our thing to make it happen."