Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
05 Dec 2007
By Michael David Smith
Tampa Bay Buccaneers middle linebacker Barrett Ruud barely even shows up in the play by play from Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Ruud finished with just one tackle, and he never got his hand on a pass, or forced a fumble, or hit the quarterback, or did anything else to get his name mentioned. So he might seem like a strange choice for this week's edition of Every Play Counts.
From watching the game, however, it's clear that Ruud's presence on the field makes an impact, even when it doesn't show up in the box score. Ruud, a third-year player in his first full season as a starter, is getting a lot of attention as one of the league's most promising young defenders, and he deserves that attention. So we'll detail the way he showcased his skills Sunday.
Ruud is one of the best middle linebackers in the league at reading what the opposing offense wants to do. Note Drew Brees' four-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Copper in the first quarter Sunday. Ruud lined up right on the goal line in the middle of the field, and as soon as the ball was snapped, he ran straight for the corner of the end zone, where Brees threw to Copper. Brees dropped a perfect pass in to Copper and neither Ruud nor Philip Buchanon, who was in coverage on the play, could do anything about it, but it was clear that Ruud knew exactly what was coming. He must have seen something in the way the Saints lined up that matched up with something he had seen on film before the game that told him exactly what play was coming. It didn't do anything for the Buccaneers on that play, but it indicates why Ruud is such a good player.
The Saints' offensive game plan appeared to account for Ruud's abilities in pass coverage. On a second-and-23, the Saints came out in an empty backfield, with four wide receivers running routes and a tight end staying in for pass protection. Ruud dropped back and was responsible for a huge chunk of real estate in the middle of the field, and ordinarily that vast empty space would have looked like a very inviting place for an opposing quarterback to throw. But the Saints apparently had enough respect for Ruud's coverage that they didn't want any part of it, and Brees instead threw a short pass to running back Aaron Stecker (who lined up as a wide receiver on the play) along the right sideline.
On the very next play, though, Brees beat Ruud down the deep middle of the field. The Saints had third-and-14 at the 45-yard line, and wide receiver Devery Henderson streaked down the middle. Henderson got a step on Bucs free safety Tanard Jackson and two steps on Ruud, and Brees hit Henderson in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. The coverage was more Jackson's responsibility than Ruud's, and this was similar to the Copper touchdown in that Ruud failed to prevent the touchdown pass but still managed to impress me. Yes, Henderson was two steps past Ruud, but most NFL linebackers wouldn't even be close to Henderson more than 50 yards past the line of scrimmage.
One reason Ruud is able to keep up with receivers deep downfield is that he lines up a little deeper than middle linebackers usually do, about seven or eight yards off the ball when the Bucs are in their base defense. The schemes of Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin -- and the many other coaches who use a similar defense -- usually place a lot of coverage responsibilities on the middle linebacker, but that seems even more true of Ruud this year than in most Tampa-2 defenses.
(It must be said, the use of the phrase "Tampa-2" defense to describe this year's Buccaneers is somewhere between misleading and just plain wrong. Kiffin has actually said that this season he calls more Cover-4 than Cover-2 schemes.)
In Tampa Bay's scheme, Ruud often lines up where a safety might line up in another defense. The Saints tried to take advantage of that on the first play of the second half, when Brees threw a short pass to Reggie Bush, who was about three yards past the line of scrimmage and right in the middle of the field. Ordinarily you'd expect the middle linebacker to be right on top of the running back in coverage on a play like that, but Ruud had actually dropped about 10 yards deep and was covering Saints wide receiver Marques Colston on a curl route. That left the middle of the field open for Bush. For this defense to work for the Bucs, Ruud needed to be able to close on Bush quickly and tackle him in the open field. The Saints were thinking Ruud wouldn't be able to do that and that Bush would turn the short pass into a big play. So did Ruud have what it took to bring down Bush in the middle of the field? We'll never know -- Bush dropped the ball, and there really wasn't a similar play the rest of the game.
Before watching the tape of this game I thought Ruud was set to become the NFL's next great middle linebacker, but I'm not quite as enthusiastic about him now. The main reason is that Ruud has trouble fighting off blocks from offensive linemen. On a second-and-8 run by Stecker, Saints left tackle Jammal Brown's job was to get to the second level and block Ruud, which he did easily. Ruud just sort of looked like he wanted to dance around Brown, rather than attack the play at the point, and I saw a lot of that when the Saints assigned a bigger man to block Ruud.
But on running plays when fullback Mike Karney was a lead blocker, I liked the way Ruud filled the hole. On a first-and-20 handoff to Bush, Karney was in front of Bush in the I formation. The play called for Bush to follow Karney through a hole on the left side of the line, but Ruud ran full-speed directly into Karney, stopping him dead in his tracks, and forced Bush to try to bounce it to the other side of the field. Bush was stopped for a gain of two yards, and defensive lineman Ryan Sims got the tackle, but it was Ruud who made the play.
Given the way Ruud plays against the run, the best way to attack the Bucs' defense may be to run straight ahead up the middle. That's especially true in short yardage; Ruud stays on the field on third-and-1, but he isn't at his best in those situations. Before the season the Bucs signed longtime Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, but he was inactive for Sunday's game, as he has been for all but one game this year. I don't know that Kiffin needs me telling him how to use his personnel, but it does seem to me that Trotter could be useful at helping the Bucs stop the run in short-yardage situations.
Overall I give Ruud a high grade for the way he played against the Saints, and he showed a lot without showing up in the stats. But while I thought before watching this game that he was becoming a great player, I now think he's more becoming a good player. Still, for a 24-year-old in his first season as a starter, that's not bad.
13 comments, Last at 07 Dec 2007, 3:02pm by coltrane23