Second-year Buccaneer Ahmad Black has made strides this offseason and is currently running second string behind veteran Ronde Barber. Not having an offseason last year due to the NFL lockout hurt, but Black is making the most of his opportunities this time around.
Not having an offseason in 2011 due to the NFL lockout wound up costing Ahmad Black a chance to make Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster a year ago. But what a difference a year makes for the Lakeland, Fla. native.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Black said. “We have a new coaching staff, so to get in here and learn the defense a little bit quicker and better – by the time the season comes around it [will be] a plus for us.”
A high ankle sprain in the 2011 preseason opener against Kansas City kept Black out of most of the four exhibition games and did not give Tampa Bay – or any other team – any chance to evaluate whether or not he had the size and speed to play in the NFL.
Lacking ideal measurables – he stands just 5-foot-9, weighs 185 pounds and running a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash – Black fell to Tampa Bay in the fifth round in the 2011 NFL Draft. This coming despite an All-American career at the University of Florida where he led the Gators with 108 tackles, five interceptions and three forced fumbles as a senior. Black ended his college career in style at Raymond James Stadium as Florida beat Penn State in the Outback Bowl thanks to his two interceptions, one of which was returned 80 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory.
Not having a rookie mini-camp, any OTAs (organized team activities) or mini-camps came back to bite Black as he was not able to make an impression on Raheem Morris’ coaching staff or the Bucs front office outside of his performance during the first two weeks prior to his ankle sprain. As a result, Black was among the Buccaneers released on September 3, but was re-signed to Tampa Bay’s practice squad two days later.
Thirteen weeks into the NFL season on December 10, Black was promoted to the active roster due to defensive end Tim Crowder’s placement on injury reserve. Black only saw a few isolated snaps in games down the stretch, but did see the majority of his rookie playing time against Atlanta in the 2011 season finale, recording three of his five tackles on the year and recovering a fumble by running back Jacquizz Rodgers at the Tampa Bay 2-yard line goal line to prevent a Falcons touchdown in the Bucs’ 45-24 loss at the Georgia Dome.
When Black, who recorded two interceptions off tipped passes during the team's second practice in May, was drafted by Tampa Bay it was said that he possessed Ronde Barber-like instincts and a nose for the ball. But the comparison seemed a bit odd because Barber had spent his first 15 years in the league playing cornerback while Black was recording 13 career interceptions as an All-American safety in college.
Now that Barber has moved to free safety on a permanent basis, just ahead of Black on the current depth chart, the comparison makes a little more sense. And given the fact that both players are learning how to play free safety in the NFL together the wily veteran and the inexperienced second-year player are actually on common ground.
“He’s learning the defense just like I am, so we try to help each other out the best way we can,” Black said.
Black is relishing the opportunity to absorb as much knowledge as he can from Tampa Bay’s all-time interceptor now that the 37-year old Barber has signed on for a franchise-record 16th season.
“Just some of his football smarts and what he sees out there,” Black said. “It’s kind of helping me out a little bit. We talk a lot about the game of football outside of here.”
Despite the fact that this is his first real offseason in the NFL and he received very little playing time as a rookie, Black has secured a spot as the backup free safety, running on the second team along with strong safety Cody Grimm. With Tampa Bay planning on running a dime defense this year to match up against pass happy teams in the NFC South, which is something the Bucs rarely did under former defensive coordinators Monte Kiffin and Raheem Morris, both of whom preferred to run nickel defenses, Black is slated for more playing time despite being a backup.
“Oh, yeah. For sure,” Black said. “When we go to dime, Ronde goes to the dime [cornerback] role and I go to free safety. I’ll do whatever [I can] for my team and do what’s best us.”
One fundamental change that could hurt Black’s opportunity for playing time is that the safety positions are no longer interchangeable as they were in the Bucs defense under Kiffin and Morris. Black hasn’t been learning the strong safety spot at all.
“I think the way we are doing it right now, the free safety is the free safety and the strong safety is the strong safety,” Black said. “We haven’t been interchanging. I’m just playing the free.”
While Tampa Bay is still playing a 4-3 base scheme with zone concepts on defense, there have been some changes to the way the Bucs will attack other team’s offenses. But the biggest change for Black is actually having the time to learn the defense in the spring and early summer, which was not the case a year ago during the NFL lockout
“It’s a variety of different things,” Black said. “They came in and changed up a few things [on defense], but having us here right now is definitely a plus because we actually get to learn the defense.”
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