Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

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, 2:02pm

1 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

This is interesting to me, because I thought that the conventional wisdom in the Tampa Bay press was that Ruud was exceptional playing the run, but suspect in pass defence.
Maybe the TD play here was Jackson's fault, but it seems to me like Ruud's zone is good for one big pass play just about every game. Every time that I see him running back with a receiver I get scared in a way I never used to with Shelton Quarles or a younger Derrick Brooks. Am I just seeing it wrong?

2 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Hasn't the knock on Brian Urlacher throughout his career been that he can't slip blocks from lineman? A lot of the coverage around him in Chicago has talked about how he needs a big NT / DT in order to be useful on running plays. This came up a lot when Ted Washington left the team. Yet Urlacher seems to be considered (one of?) the best MLB in the league despite having trouble slipping OL blocks.

4 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

I think Urlacher improved significantly from when he was first given a huge amount of recognition, to when he became the player he is now, notwithstanding the back issues he's had this year. The notion that Urlacher was overrated was not completely without substance early in his career, but that changed quickly. Getting off blocks still isn't a strong point of his game, however.

I've got a question for a Bucs' fan: how have Sims and Hovan performed this year? I thought that Sims had a decent chance to resurrect his career with Kiffin, and Hovan has always been interesting to me, since I've never seen a lineman perched on the brink of being dominant player, as Hovan was by 2002 and 2003, fall so completely backward, as he had by the time he left the Vikings. When he was at his best with the Vikings, for a brief period, he was Tommy Harris-like, in how often he was obviously the first lineman on either side of the ball to enter the neutral zone. Suddenly and mysteriously, that disappeared, and never came back.

5 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Interesting article, MDS, especially considering it was a pretty quiet game for Ruud. I agree with you to an extent on the "shedding" blockers issue this week - he got caught up by the big boys a lot against the Saints. And while I think that's a relative weakness in his game, it's normally nowhere near as visible as it was last week. As for Trotter, that all sounds great, but the fact is that Trotter's not a special teamer, and that makes him hard to activate. Personally, I wouldn't replace Ruud in such situations, but have them both on the field in goal-line. But that's a luxury at this point.

Whelk, I think that's overstating things with Ruud. First of all, the team just hasn't given up that many big pass plays. The two that come to mind that implicate Ruud were the Henderson td, and a big play in week 1 that got Seattle down inside the five. In both cases, the blame was mostly on the safety. As I understand it, Ruud's job isn't to be step for step - it's to be close certaintly but also to be between the QB and WR so that the QB has to drop it over the top where the S can clean up the play. Against Seattle, Ruud was where he was supposed to be, but the Bucs' safeties blew the coverage. Against the Saints, Ruud wasn't as close, but Tanard Jackson was right there - that was a can of corn. Word is that he lost that in the lights - if you watch the replay it's obvious he has no idea where the ball is.

You are right about the CW - but I think that CW was based more on the fact that he was bigger than a typical Bucs linebacker. The assumption from day one was run-stuffer. Plus, it did look like a bit of a weakness in limited PT last year.

One thing about Ruud in the run game - he's really good sideline to sideline.

6 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Will Allen, to be honest I haven't noticed Hovan as much as I did last year. In 2006, I thought he was the most underrated player on the D. I'm not so sure that he's fallen off so much as it is that the players around him are starting to play better - guys like Jovan Haye, Greg White, and Gaines Adams are starting to make more splash plays and I think it tends to hide the dirty work that Hovan does so well.

He's never going to do what he did in Minnesota early in his career simply because his role is changed. Still, he's an important piece of the puzzle up front.

As for Sims, the Bucs have gone real slow with him, but he's finally starting to make an impact. I thought he's been pretty good in limited action in recent weeks. They wanted him to drop some weight so that he could handle the heat in Florida, and he appears to have done that. Right now he rotates in for Hovan mostly (the Bucs rotate the DL a lot under Coyer).

The sense with Sims is that the talent was there but that for whatever reason (3 different DL coaches, ill-fitting scheme, sloth) he just couldn't put it together. Let's just say I was not optimistic at first, but I'm starting to think the Bucs might have gotten a decent player for a small price (it's murky, but believed to be a conditional 6th rounder).

7 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Yeah, you're right about it not being every game. I guess I just remember those two TDs too strongly. I just looked and the Bucs are 3rd in pass DVOA against tight ends, which I assume would point to Ruud not being victimized.

As for Hovan, he's been pretty much under the radar this year. I can't say that he's not playing well, and he's still listed as the number one tackle, but we've seen more pressure from Jovan Haye and the several Gregs. Also, we seem to rotate our linemen alot more than we used to. I'd be interested to know who get's the most plays. Does anyone have an estimate?

9 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Well, I never knew what quite to make of Hovan's severe decline in Minnesota. Like I said, for a brief period he was into the neutral zone as quickly as anybody in the league, but then lost that quality. Then again, he had Ted Cottrell as his coordinator in his final period with the Vikings, so one has to factor that as well. It still amounts to a sudden decline in explosiveness which is unusual by my observation. I always thought the guy played very hard, however, so I'm glad to see him have some level of success in Tampa.

10 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Is it just me, or can you really never tell how well a single player is doing unless you focus on him exclusively (camera permitting)

12 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Everytime you hear about good MLB's they get desribed as being unable to shed blocks. eg.. Ray Lewis, Urlacher, Ruud, etc... even watched Farrior the another night and he couldnt either. So my question is, which top MLB's can? on one hand it makes sense that they shouldnt be expected to shed blocks often, they are much smaller, and if they could then it would mean the linemen are crap and cant block!

13 Re: Every Play Counts: Barrett Ruud

Nathan (#10):

It's not just you. I make a concerted effort to watch the lines during live action, but the natural inclination is to follow the ball. So I still find it easy to lose track of who's doing what, and who's doing it well on a given play without replay and/or rewinding the play on the DVR.

Even with replay and rewind, there's really no way to follow the WR/secondary play from televised games. I love watching games in person, because you really get a sense for the organized chaos on each play that doesn't come across on TV.