S Will Allen's first interception seemed to be a game-clincher; when it wasn't he just picked off another one
One of the more interesting battles in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' recent training camp was at free safety, where former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, the veteran, was trying to hold off second-year man Will Allen, the up-and-comer.
Both Jackson and Allen looked good in camp, but Jackson came away with the job. He started the season opener in Minnesota and would have started the home opener against Buffalo a week ago had he not hurt his hand while covering the opening kickoff. Jackson was back with the starting 11 when the Bucs opened the game in Green Bay on Sunday, but he went down midway through the second quarter with a hamstring strain. That brought Allen into the game for his most extensive regular-season playing time since the Bucs drafted him in the fourth round 17 months ago.
By definition, that meant the Bucs were replacing a starter on their top-ranked defense with a reserve.
That definition is not in Monte Kiffin's dictionary.
"We play 11 guys on defense, not 12," said Kiffin, the Buccaneers' demonstrative defensive coordinator. "If you're out there, you're a starter. We expect you to play like a starter. When Will came in there, he knew what was expected of him."
And he delivered.
It says nothing bad of Jackson, who simply couldn't be on the field and might have turned in any number of his own big moments, but Allen came up with the two most important defensive plays of the second half as the Bucs desperately held on to a tiny lead. Allen twice intercepted terrifying Packer quarterback Brett Favre in the fourth quarter, both on the type of deep balls that had stung the Bucs in the second and third quarters. The first pick looked like it might seal the game; the second one actually did, with a little bit of help from fellow young Buc Cadillac Williams.
See, the Packers had every intention of airing it out Sunday, which means heady safety play was a must for the Buccaneers. In the first quarter, facing a fourth down at the Bucs' 37 and trailing 7-0, the Packers went for it, and did so boldly, with Favre throwing deep to WR Robert Ferguson for a 37-yard touchdown. Favre and his receivers proceeded to run a series of double-move routes, repeatedly trying to hit the big play.
"We knew going into the game, and I think we executed our game plan well, that they jump routes, that's what they're good at," said Favre. "Their front four is excellent at rushing the passer, so they are able to read routes, so we wanted to take some shots and have those DBs thinking and we did a good job of that."
And that was the fear, if one was a Buc fan, in the fourth quarter, with the visitors trying to protect a 17-13 lead, then a 17-16 lead. Sure enough, two plays after Tampa Bay was forced to punt with 12 minutes left in the game, Favre lofted a deep ball to receiver Donald Driver on the right sideline. A similar play had worked for 37 yards in the first quarter. This time, the coverage by the Bucs' cornerback looked good, but it might still have been a jump ball if Allen had not cut in front of the play and picked it off at Tampa Bay's 36.
When Williams followed with a 26-yard run into Green Bay territory two plays later, it looked like the Bucs might drive for the game-clinching score. Allen's turnover appeared to be the one defensive play the Bucs needed to put the game away and deny Favre one of his heart-stopping, last-minute drives.
"[Allen] is another young guy who is getting his first real opportunity to play critical snaps, meaningful games early in the season and he made some real hits," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Our support was outstanding today on the second level. I thought he had some great hits and he obviously made the big interception."
Ah, but to which pick does Gruden refer? Two plays after Williams' big run, Buccaneer quarterback Brian Griese was picked off by second-year CB Ahmad Carroll, who returned the takeaway 38 yards to the Bucs' 32. The Packers kicked a field goal to make the game 17-16, then forced a three-and-out – helped by several Buccaneer penalties – on the ensuing possession. Even with a great Josh Bidwell punt and good coverage, the Packers still had the ball exactly at midfield, trailing by just one with six minutes to play.
Running back Ahman Green got just two yards on first down. Favre's second-down pass, out to the right flat, was nearly intercepted by linebacker Derrick Brooks. On third-and-eight, the Packers decided it was time to air it out again. This time Ferguson went one-on-one with cornerback Juran Bolden down the right side, with Allen patrolling a zone over the middle of the field. Bolden kept tight coverage on Ferguson and managed to get his hands on the ball first. The football came up off Bolden's hands and seemed to be headed towards Ferguson, who was still paying close attention to its whereabouts. That's when Allen streaked into the play, catching the loose ball as he dived over the receiver. Allen then got up and ran the ball back to the Bucs' 31.
"Juran made a great play because he got beat in the first quarter on that one touchdown and this time he was there right with the receiver running stride for stride and he got a tip on it," said Allen. "I saw the ball tipped and I was just running to the ball. If the receiver would have caught it or not, I was just there to be a security. Right when I saw the tip I said 'Here goes the pick,' and I just ran and got it."
Williams did the rest, producing 44 yards and two first downs with his feet as the Bucs ran the last three minutes off the clock.
The Bucs' Cadillac will be the toast of the NFL on Monday, and deservedly so. He is the first player in the league's 86 years to rush for over 100 yards in each of his first three games, and he would be on the short list of MVP candidates if the season ended today. Williams heads up what is, so far, an extremely impressive 2005 draft class, as tight end Alex Smith and guard Dan Buenning have also started each of the first three contests. Other '05 draftees, like linebacker Barrett Ruud, tackle Chris Colmer and defensive tackle Anthony Bryant, might still make a big impact in the near future.
But Allen is from the 2004 draft class, which isn't too shabby either. Wide receiver Michael Clayton, the first-rounder in that class, has been an instant star, like Williams, but his draft mates play important roles, too. Gruden, in fact, has exhorted that group to make more noise this year. Allen certainly did on Sunday in Green Bay.
"That is the responsibility we have," said Allen. "Coach Gruden constantly tells us that he needs a lot out of his first-year players and more out of his second-year players because we know what is going and we have been around for a year. We know the name of the game so we just have to go out there and produce. I am out there on special teams, I am on defense, so when I have an opportunity to play I have to capitalize on every opportunity I have and make the best of it and then take it even more. I think today I showed that and I am just blessed and I am happy that I had the opportunity."