After Sunday's 17-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, which was definitely a 'tale of two halves' for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense, Head Coach Raheem Morris said there were no significant adjustments made at halftime.
While that was true tactically – the primary Xs and Os didn't change – one very important adjustment actually did happen during the break. It took place inside Geno Hayes' head.
The 2009 season was Hayes' second in the NFL and first as a starter, and he was all of 22 years old when it started. By all accounts, it was a successful debut for the former Florida State star, though it did contain some of the ups and downs one would expect from a young and inexperienced starter. According to both Hayes and Morris, some negative moments occurred when Hayes became too excited and fell out of the structure of the defense.
To combat that and to take the next step forward as a pro, Hayes worked on a new approach to start his second season in the lineup. The idea was to tamp down his excitement level and try to play with a cooler, more analytical demeanor, thus producing more consistent results and less highs and lows.
That approach lasted all of two quarters into the 2010 season.
"I was just trying to take another approach to the game," Hayes explained on Monday. "I wasn't really out there letting it go like I usually do. I was just more calm, not getting as excited and losing what I can do. [It was] really just playing calm and conserving energy…and that was something I couldn't do. I've got to go out there and just play ball."
Hayes had little to show for the first half of play – one assisted tackle, according to the official play-by-play – and the Bucs' defense as a whole was on its heels. Jake Delhomme and the Browns offense had produced 202 yards and two touchdowns to take a 14-3 lead into the two-minute warning before halftime. The pass rush hadn't moved Delhomme around much, the Browns had broken a couple big running plays on bad gap fits and cornerback E.J. Biggers, in his first career regular season game and start, was trying to find his way.
Then Ronde Barber intercepted a Delhomme pass and returned it 64 yards to the Cleveland three, setting up a Mike Williams touchdown and getting the home team right back into the game. Hayes said that play pumped energy into the entire defense, and that apparently changed his way of thinking.
The Bucs went into the locker room just moments later and Hayes sat down and thought about his first-half experience. It didn't feel right.
"I took the wrong approach the first half and [during halftime] I went in and re-evaluated myself and told myself, 'That's not my game,'" he said. "I see the pace of the game can be dictated by how excited I am and a couple other guys on the squad, too. If you're going to do anything, you've got to go out there and put it on the table and help your guys out.
"You've got to play football, go out there and have fun, and that's what I came out in the second half and did. During the whole game, I already knew what I was doing. Formation recognition – I knew that stuff. To actually miss a play on that stuff kind of made me mad so I really let loose and after that I had fun."
Indeed, there were few players who stood out more during the second half of Sunday's game than Hayes, who started racking up the tackles and made several plays behind the line of scrimmage. In the first half, the Browns scored their second touchdown on a 10-yard run around left end by Peyton Hillis, and the Bucs made it easy on the Browns back by not reacting to the play correctly. Morris said Hayes wasn't able to communicate the play call to the defensive end on that side of the line, and that's why the edge was so open for Hillis. In the second half, the Browns tried the same play, the communication was perfect this time and with containment on the end Hayes was able to catch Jerome Harrison in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
Of course, there was a reason that Hayes experimented with a calmer form of play, and it wasn't to drain away all of his enthusiasm for the game. Sunday's second-half surge was not a triumph of chaos over critical thinking; rather, it was an indication that Hayes can operate within his normal excitement level without losing his head.
In that way, Morris compared the young linebacker to the team's most grizzled veteran and the author of the afternoon's game-changing play, Ronde Barber. Morris called Hayes and Barbers "vigilantes" of a sort, in that they sometimes break out of the design of a defensive play call in order to make an important play. That was offered in contrast to the great Derrick Brooks, from whom Hayes inherited the weakside linebacker position. Brooks insisted on following every scheme to the letter, and within that structure made just as many big plays as Barber.
Morris likes the bit of Barber he sees in Hayes. He just wants him to mix it with a little Brooks, too.
"They make plays outside of the box, but part of that is what makes those guys great," said Morris of Hayes and Barber. "Derrick Brooks was the right way. I'm not trying to make Geno Derrick, I'm just trying to get him somewhere near that structure. He's a little bit different. I do have some calls where I can free him up that allows him to be his best self. He has some skills that I can't teach. He's always going to have some minuses because of that but he's also going to have two tackles for loss or a possible splash-play blitz.
"You try to contain him, so to speak, and in the second half he let it go. But he did communicate, so I made a step."
Hayes is fortunate in that he plays in a Buccaneers scheme that, when operated correctly by both him and his teammates, should create tons of play-making opportunities for his position. That was evident in the second half against the Browns, after his halftime epiphany. If Hayes can continue to strike a balance between his head and his heart, he'll find many opportunities within the scheme, and maybe a few more outside the box.
"Last year I would get over-excited a little bit and go out there and blow an assignment, blow a fit," said Hayes. "Once I realized I was doing the same thing, I was really focused on being excited and playing great."
And Hayes feels a responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities, because he believes his teammates are looking him to be the spark that gets them going. It was Barber who did so on Sunday, and the change was easy to see not only in Hayes but in the entire defense. Biggers played a stellar second half and essentially sealed the win with a fourth-quarter interception. The defensive line suddenly had Delhomme on the run on almost every play. The run defense completely clamped down.
"The interception by Biggers…the pass-rush by [Brian] Price, Quincy Black, [Gerald] McCoy and Stylez [G. White] there at the end was phenomenal," said Morris. "The pressure being put on Delhomme – he's a crafty quarterback able to get out of some of those situations and throw some balls away and throw some checkdowns, but he threw some incompletions and he also threw an interception. That was growth and development of a young football team."