The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are discussing contingency plans at the safety position after learning of starting free safety Tanard Jackson's four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy on Tuesday.
With Jackson, who expressed remorse Tuesday and will not appeal the suspension, scheduled to miss the first four games of the 2009 regular season, the Bucs will either move backup Will Allen into the starting lineup or move converted linebacker Jermaine Phillips back to safety.
"Will Allen and Sabby [Piscitelli] have had good camps," said Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates. "Those two will do a role. We'll also get Jermaine back there and take a look at him. He's done a good job at Will [linebacker], but we may have to cross train him."
Allen is nursing a shoulder injury he sustained during Tampa Bay's preseason contest in Tennessee on Saturday night, but said his shoulder is "going good."
As for playing in Tampa Bay's next preseason game, which is in Jacksonville on Saturday, Allen wasn't ready to commit.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," Allen said. "We'll just wait and see what's going to happen on Saturday."
Allen has significant starting experience on defense. He has started 24 games since joining the Bucs as a fourth-round pick in 2004. The Bucs have gone as far as saying they feel they have three starting-caliber safeties in Jackson, Piscitelli and Allen.
"It's definitely encouraging," Allen said. "I'm still growing, still learning. I'm going into my sixth year in the league and I'm just anxious. I've been blessed with a great opportunity here with a new situation and a new look. I hit free agency and I signed back. I'm just excited, man. I'm excited about the year. That was my attitude, just being very optimistic, and take advantage of every opportunity that I had and every rep that I had. The coaches took notice, too, but there is still work that needs to be done."
Allen also serves as the team's special teams captain, but he's ready to enter the starting lineup again on defense if he's called on to do that.
"It's unfortunate what happened to Tanard, but I've always been ready to go," Allen said. "I've been blessed with an opportunity and I have to take advantage of it. He made a mistake and I know he's learned from it. I can't wait to get him back on the field. He's a great player and a great competitor. I'm just ready to go in there and step up."
Phillips, 30, is one of three members that remain from Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII team. Like Allen, Phillips re-signed with the Bucs during the offseason, but "Flip" was moved from safety to weakside linebacker to replace 11-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks.
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris first approached Phillips about changing positions during the offseason, an idea he accepted. Phillips said he's open to doing whatever it takes to help the team win.
"My role, if you look at it, it's just whatever the team needs me to do," Phillips said. "They came in during the offseason and asked me to move to weakside linebacker and I accepted that and embraced that. I tell everybody that I'm not a linebacker and I'm not a safety. I'm the Slash of defense – wherever they need me. In case anything comes down, if they need me at safety they want me to go in there and not miss a beat. It's still is what it is. I'm still a ‘backer and that's what I am. I'm just being a team guy."
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Phillips has 72 career starts at safety, and although those came in former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's "Tampa 2" scheme, the experience is something that should help Phillips with the reps he is taking at safety.
"It's going to help him, plus he has a good feel for the whole defense," said Bates. "When you play linebacker in this scheme you understand what's going on around you, so it won't be as hard of a transition. It's not like it's totally different, but there is going to be a learning curve. It's something that will take some time to get him up to speed. It will take a little patience and time, but we feel we can get it done."
For Phillips, the terminology is the biggest hurdle to overcome in learning the responsibilities of the safety position in Bates' defense.
"The scheme is different," Phillips said. "Anytime you look at different schemes and different D-coordinators there are a lot of different things, but when you get down to it, ball is ball. It's elementary. It's the same thing you've been doing since we were little kids – go out there, hustle, hit and make plays."
Should the Bucs decide to move Phillips to safety on a permanent basis, Bates said such a decision would be easier to make since the team's group of linebackers, including second-year player Geno Hayes, have performed well. Hayes could be called on to fill the void left by Phillips if he's moved to safety.
"The linebackers have really played liked we had hoped," said Bates. "You never really know until you get in a game, but the speed of the whole group and the gap responsibility – those are things they've done a good job with. If we do have to move Jermaine back there permanently we do have some linebackers that can play, but that has yet to be decided."