Nearly back to full health, LB Derrick Brooks was a blur on the field again Monday night
Monday night, on the first play of a St. Louis drive midway through the second quarter, quarterback Kurt Warner dropped back into the pocket, pump-faked a pass, then handed off to running back Marshall Faulk on a draw play. The play cost the Rams a loss of two yards because, immediately after the exchange and at the exact same moment, defensive tackle Warren Sapp leveled Warner and linebacker Derrick Brooks buried Faulk.
On what proved to be the last offensive play of the game for St. Louis, Warner tried to throw a deep post to wide receiver Torry Holt on the left side, but Brooks dropped into coverage and leaped just high enough to tip the pass over Holt and into the hands of safety John Lynch.
Between those two plays, ABC Monday Night Football analyst Dennis Miller praised Sapp, Brooks and Lynch, pithily pointing out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the rare fortune of a leader on every level of the defense.
One could argue that this three-tiered tower of leaders was the key to the Bucs' sustained defensive success from 1997 through 2000. During much of 2001, however, the tower has suffered from structural damage at its center.
Brooks, who built his four-Pro Bowl reputation by making plays sideline to sideline, end zone to end zone, suffered a sprained foot in the Bucs' season opening win at Dallas. He still played extremely well in the next game (albeit three weeks later) at Minnesota, setting a team record with 23 tackles, but he aggravated the injury in the Metrodome and has struggled to overcome it ever since. In the month of October, and into November, he played Sunday after Sunday on a foot that would not allow him to practice during the week. Though still a valuable player, Brooks was clearly not capable of performing up to his Pro Bowl level.
The Bucs basically admitted this much after the team's 31-28 loss at Tennessee, in which Brooks had an interception but just seven tackles. Running back Warrick Dunn was also hobbled with a foot sprain at the time, but the coaching staff felt it was better to have those two players on the field at less than full capacity than to not have them at all.
"Had we been winning and had a little more momentum going, with he and Warrick, you would have said at some point, let them take a week off and hopefully heal them up," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "But the way we were playing, we couldn't really afford to do that."
On Monday, though, in a game Tampa Bay desperately needed him in order to contain the league's reigning MVP, running back Marshall Faulk, the Bucs were treated to a welcome sight. Brooks was everywhere. Twelve tackles, two passes deflected, two stops behind the line of scrimmage. Brooks was back.
"He's getting back healthier," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I think playing on the Astroturf where he can use his feet, against the type of game the Rams usually present where it is sideline to sideline and a lot of passing - that really is Derrick's game."
Speed, quickness, technique and instincts are Brooks' game. The foot injury robbed him of that speed and made sudden cuts difficult. A good move by a back could gain separation and the area that he could cover in a zone defense was diminished. Not so on Monday in St. Louis, where he and fellow linebacker Jamie Duncan were noticeable parts of the pass defense. For Brooks, it was partly the product of practicing all week without limitations for the first time in awhile.
"This is the closest to 100 percent its been all year, and it's feeling better this Wednesday than it did last Wednesday," he said.
As such, the Bucs have not put him on the injury report for the first time since the season opener. Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli agrees that Brooks is nearing total recovery and is not even discussing the issue with Dungy any longer. Brooks will practice all week once again to prepare for a different type of challenge in Cincinnati, a much more physical game with runner Corey Dillon.
"We have to bring a more physical game," said Brooks of the Bengals matchup. "Everything that we did last week, we've got to have more of it this week because it's a tougher game.
That's what the Bucs are hoping to get from Brooks down the stretch: More. Sapp says he feels better knowing a healthy number 55 has his back, and the Bucs' defense, not coincidentally, seemed to regain some of its swagger in St. Louis.
Brooks is immeasurably helpful in the Bucs' zone pass defense, thanks to his speed and instinct for the passing game. Tampa Bay linebackers are often asked to cover the middle of the field fairly deep, and Brooks' has 11 career interceptions and 67 passes broken up. He has picked off more passes than any other linebacker in team history. Dungy also agrees that having Brooks back near top form, and in practice during the week, has helped the run defense, as evidenced by the 76 yards allowed on Monday.
"I think it does," said Dungy. "We've had healthier guys. We've been able to practice better, and that helps, too."
At times this year, Brooks has looked desperate to get into the action at practice, lining up safely behind the defense during plays and gingerly mirroring the linebackers' moves. Actually, Brooks was following a plan laid out by new Linebackers Coach Joe Barry, who inherited a player he calls 'the best linebacker in the league,' then quickly found himself with damaged goods. Brooks says that Barry 'found a way for me to play hurt.'
"When a guy is hurt to the point where he can't practice, you can't just throw your hands up in the air and say, 'Okay, see you on Sunday,'" said Barry. "You have to be creative and come up with ways to get him better on Wednesday and Thursday even though he's not going through things 'live.' Every day, we talked about how we were going to do it, and we tried to get 'mental reps' on film.
"The number one thing I did every day was have him stand 20 yards behind everybody. Even though he wasn't getting the physical work, I wanted him going through every formation, I wanted him going through each alignment and I wanted him to see everything he was going to see in the game. Even though you're not physically able to do it, at least you see it. Sometimes, the mental reps that you get are as good as the physical reps."
Sometimes, but not all the time.
"You're never going to be as good that way, I don't care who you are," Barry admitted. "Derrick is the perfect example. If you're not practicing and getting the reps during the week, it's going to be hard to just show up on Sunday and play. That's probably why he wasn't the Derrick Brooks we thought he was going to be."
Judging from Monday's performance, he is now, and that's exceedingly good news for the Buccaneers.