S Jermaine Phillips enjoys nothing more than a hard hit on a running back coming through the hole
Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans are acutely familiar with thunder and lightning. Not only do those conditions characterize the local Tampa weather, they also described the team's running attack a few years ago, when Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn shared carries.
However, on the current squad, that moniker might be perfectly applied to the back end of the team's starting secondary, which features free safety Will Allen and strong safety Jermaine Phillips.
While both players can play either position – and have done so in the past – the ball-hawking Allen and hard-hitting Phillips are hoping to form a one-two punch that complements each other's talents and knocks out opposing offenses.
"Jermaine and I, we both communicate together," said Allen, who gained valuable experience starting eight games last season. "We work back there as a team, as one string. It helps the fluidity. It helps the chemistry, and it's good when you have a guy who knows what he's doing beside you, and we can just interchange and work together."
"We like Jermaine Phillips a lot, and I like Will Allen a lot also," said Head Coach Jon Gruden at the start of training camp this year. "Those are our starting safeties, and they can play. They were on the number-one pass defense in football last year. They're young, they're coming into their own now."
Despite each player's versatility, Phillips' ultra-aggressive play has helped him assume the "thunder" role to Allen's "lightning," which last year struck several times, as he tied for third on the team in creating turnovers.
"Our key as a defensive backfield is to get the ball back and score," Allen said. "Whenever we touch that ball our mentality is to score. We pride ourselves on turnovers. We pride ourselves on rushing the passer, and we definitely work hard each and every day to get the ball back. It's a bigger emphasis this year because we've been down the past few years in turnovers, but I think everyone is thinking about it."
For Allen, that means building on the success he had last year, which included scoring the first defensive touchdown of his career and picking off Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre twice in the same game.
"I just kind of read his eyes and read his shoulders and I take a glance at where the wide receivers are before the snap and a little during the snap," said Allen on making a game-changing play. "I think 'QB key ball on break.' That's our motto on defense, as a defensive backfield. That's how [Ronde] Barber makes his picks, [Brian] Kelly makes his picks, Phillips and everybody else. That's just the key – 'QB key ball on break' and run as fast as you can to that spot. It's eyes before feet when you break. It's all the fundamentals you do in practice and the things you watch on film that helps you get that knack for making a play."
Equally as important to winning the turnover battle is stopping the run in a division of potent ground games. Atlanta again had the number-one ranked rushing offense last year, and New Orleans and Carolina ranked among the top 10 in the conference. That's where Phillips comes in. The fifth-round pick of 2002 has made 30 starts in his career, including four playoff games and last season ranked fifth on the team in tackles (85).
"I play aggressively, I'm an aggressive player," Phillips said. "I play the strong safety position, and it's either hit or be hit. A big hit does a lot. When you hit somebody and they feel it, they come through the hole the next time thinking about it, and they know they are going to get hit again. They see you coming, and they know you are not going to shy away. You never know what could happen. They might fumble the next time doing too much thinking."
Phillips says he's learned a lot from former Buccaneers safety John Lynch and spoken with NFL legends Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum, all considered among the hardest hitters ever to play the position.
"I learned a lot of it from Lynch," Phillips said. "When I was at the University of Georgia, I was known as a big hitter but coming to Tampa and getting experience under Lynch and just watching him – and him taking the time to show me and trying to help me perfect the art of hard hitting – was just great.
"[Lott] gives great advice like hitting through a person," Phillips added. "You are not hitting that person, you are hitting 10 players through that person – trying to hit that back person. It's an art form. Having Jack Tatum come here last year and sitting down and talking to him – all that is really special, especially when you play the safety position. Those are guys who revolutionized the safety position as the hard hitting type. You have to respect that, and any time you get a moment to talk to them, you have to appreciate it."
While he acknowledges that the NFC South boasts some strong running attacks, Phillips says the defense remains focused on its own progress.
"It starts with us, we can't worry about anybody else," Phillips said. "It's about Tampa Bay Bucs D. That's why we have the coaching staff we do and we players keep each other accountable. We take it seriously and know that it's a winning edge for us, especially when we're doing it right."
Allen agrees and says the experience he gained last year starting eight games is going to help him again contribute to the vaunted Bucs defense.
"I got to see a lot of snaps," he says. "I got to see half of the NFL, the great players in the NFL, and just being able to compete gives me confidence and it gives my teammates confidence in me that I can get the job done. I'm excited. We have a great bunch of guys returning all the way around the board, and I think the sky's the limit."
If he's right, that sky just might be filled with some good old thunder and lightning – at least on Sundays.