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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had linebacker Derrick Brooks start for them for 206 straight games. That is the second-longest streak among active players, behind only quarterback Brett Favre. With Brooks pulling his hamstring against the New Orleans Saints and questionable for this Sunday's home opener, it could be a strange sight for Bucs fans to see someone other than Brooks lining up at the Will (weakside) linebacker spot.
When Brooks went down with his injury against the Saints, the Buccaneers initially put second-year linebacker Adam Hayward in as Brooks' replacement. After a short amount of time, Hayward started to cramp up and had to leave the game. Veteran Matt McCoy replaced Hayward as the Will linebacker. McCoy finished the game there and recorded one tackle.
The least likely option to replace Brooks would be to play rookie Will linebacker Geno Hayes. Hayes received some first-team reps in practice this week, but that may have been to get some work since he was inactive last week and could be active against Atlanta if Brooks is held out, or has to leave the game early.
Thus, the Buccaneers have three realistic options to replace Brooks in the linebacker corps. The first would be to replace Brooks at the Will linebacker spot with Hayward. Another option is to replace Brooks with McCoy, and the third option is to put Quincy Black in as the Sam (strongside) linebacker and move starter Cato June to the Will linebacker.
This Campbell's Cover 2 will take on a different structure with a debate on the three options. Cover 1- Hayward should replace Brooks.
Of all the linebackers behind Brooks, Hayward is the player that has practiced the most at the Will. He is the Buccaneer that has been groomed to play this position over 2007, the 2008 organized team activities, training camp, and the preseason. Given all that practice time at Will, Hayward is the player that is most prepared to replace Brooks.
Other than Hayward, the other player that was getting backup reps at the Will linebacker was Hayes. They both saw a significant amount of snaps in training camp and the preseason. The Buccaneers were protecting Brooks from overwork, and held him out of afternoon practices at training camp and cut down on his reps in the practices that he did participate in. Hayward was the player that benefited most from that. He was able to retain his roster spot and solidify himself as the backup Will.
Prior to training camp and then just before the regular season, sources told Pewter Report that of the young linebackers on the roster, Hayward was the one that was furthest along in his development. Hayward went on to prove that during the preseason.
Of the linebackers that were drafted in the past two seasons, Hayward led them in tackles in the preseason. Hayward had seven, Black had six, and Hayes had five. Hayward also showed some positional flexibility. In the preseason finale at Houston, Hayward spent some time at middle linebacker as well and had an impressive game.
He got a few pressures on blitzes, and Hayward was consistently in the Texans backfield. He burst through the line on a few runs to set up some tackles for loss, and was effective when he blitzed by getting into the quarterback's face and forcing throws to come out early. One of Hayward's pressures led to quarterback Shane Boyd being sacked, and helped stall the Texans' last scoring drive.
Hayward has proven to have the intelligence, speed, and athleticism to have positional flexibility. He also has intangibles. He is a good teammate and a leader on special teams. Hayward is a driven and determined individual that made the big transition from Portland State to the NFL last season. Part of what aided Hayward in sticking with the Buccaneers was his pursuit skills.
Bucs fans have gotten very used to the sight of Brooks chasing down ball carriers from behind or laterally across the field. Hayward's pursuit skills are one of his biggest strengths. That ability to run sideline to sideline is essential in the Bucs' Tampa 2 defensive scheme. The Buccaneers will have to defend the run in the next two games in particular. Atlanta is led by running back Michael Turner, and Chicago has an upstart running game led by rookie Matt Forte. Tampa Bay will have to bring good run defense to those contests, and Hayward looked stronger against the run in training camp than Black.
Of the three options to replace Brooks, Hayward is the closest to the speed player that Brooks is. Since he earned the backup Will spot in the preseason he deserves to replace Brooks if the veteran has to miss time. The lineup would also have less shuffling if Hayward came in for Brooks, rather than Black going in at Sam and June being moved to Will.
In order to find out if young players have long-term potential they have to get meaningful snaps at some point. The Buccaneers have a draft pick and tons of coaching hours invested in Hayward. At some point it is sink or swim with young players in the NFL, and this reporter believes that Hayward has the ability to excel if given the opportunity. With his speed and pursuit ability at the forefront of his game, the Buccaneers should have Hayward ready to go in for Brooks if and when the time comes.
Cover 2- McCoy should replace Brooks.
While Hayward has flashed talent to go along with his determination, it would be best for Brooks to be replaced by a veteran linebacker. Hayward and Black have not proven to be effective NFL linebackers at this point. While McCoy did not receive a lot of playing time in his NFL career, he still has more experience than either of the young linebackers.
McCoy entered the league as a second-round pick with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2005 NFL Draft. In the 2006 season, McCoy started 10 games for the Eagles and made 85 tackles with three forced fumbles. But injuries have hurt McCoy's career. He followed up his '06 season by missing nine games in 2007. As a rookie in 2005, McCoy missed 12 games.
While McCoy has missed a lot of time due to injury, and watched a lot more from the sidelines, he still is the only backup Buccaneer linebacker to have started multiple games in his career. Tampa Bay is trying to win now and repeat as NFC South Division champions. With that in mind, they would be in a better shape to plug in an experienced linebacker.
McCoy has been taking snaps as Barrett Ruud's backup at the Mike (middle) linebacker, and he did not see action at the Sam or Will during training camp or the preseason. However prior to signing with the Bucs, McCoy was an outside linebacker for the first three years of his career. That experience allowed him to enter the New Orleans game at outside linebacker and fill the spot.
During the game, McCoy recorded one tackle and came short on a few others, most notably on Reggie Bush's touchdown. The Buccaneers obviously have confidence in McCoy and his ability to play multiple positions at linebacker. The fact that Tampa Bay put McCoy in at Will, rather than Black in at Sam and moving June to Will, indicates that the Buccaneers feel that McCoy is ahead of Black in terms of being a player that is ready to see game action on defense.
McCoy brings speed and athleticism to the table. In training camp, there did not look like much of a drop-off between Ruud and McCoy from a skills standpoint. Ruud was more active and made more big plays than McCoy, but Ruud did not look noticeably faster than his backup. McCoy had a great training camp, and the coaching staff agreed as he still beat out Ryan Nece to make the final roster while missing some practice and preseason games with a few nagging injuries.
Had McCoy been able to play in all the of the preseason games he probably would have been the Buccaneers' leading tackler. He finished tied for second on the team with eight tackles in the preseason. That was ahead of Hayward and Black.
While McCoy did not have the preparation time at Will linebacker, he still is a viable replacement for Brooks. He has more experience than the other backups and that is vital for a team that needs to be able to shut down the run in the next two games. Hayward and Black will get an opportunity eventually, but with a linebacker needed for perhaps a game or two, it would be wise to go with the player that is least likely to hurt the defense. Cover 3- Black should go in and be the linebacker replacement.
While there are compelling arguments to go with Hayward or McCoy, the option that he Buccaneers should pursue is playing second-year linebacker Black. By playing Black, Tampa Bay would have the best Will linebacker replacement in for Brooks. That player is Cato June.
The Tampa 2 defensive scheme relies on the Will linebacker to make a large amount of tackles. The Sam linebacker takes on blocks and helps free up the Mike and Will to make the majority of tackles. For years, Bucs fans are used to their Mike linebackers (Ruud, Shelton Quarles, and Hardy Nickerson) and their Will linebacker (Brooks) being amongst the top two leaders in tackles. Brooks has changed his position with his success in the NFL. Teams now look for linebackers like Brooks to fill a spot in Cover 2 defenses, and prior to Brooks many players that were his size and had his speed were safeties in the NFL.
Hayward and McCoy are fast, athletic players that have earned their roster spots and look to have bright NFL futures. The Buccaneers are trying to win now, and they already have a proven Pro Bowl Will linebacker in June. The sixth-year player had great seasons as a Will for the Indianapolis Colts. June was in the Pro Bowl and selected as an All-Pro linebacker in 2005. Below are June stats across his career as a Will linebacker.
2004 128 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defensed 2005 109 tackles, five interceptions, six passes defensed 2006 162 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed
That kind of production is similar to seasons posted by Brooks in his Hall-of-Fame career. When June signed with the Buccaneers he was moved to the Sam, but he and Brooks split the snaps last season as the Will linebacker in nickel coverage. Thus, June has stayed sharp at lining up as the Will.
The other bonus to June moving to Will is the Buccaneers will get a good look at the progress made by Black, their third-round pick in the 2007 draft. Black has great speed, but he also has more size than any other Bucs linebacker other than Ruud — they are both 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds.
Black's size will help him hold up at the point of attack against the next two opponents. Both figure to run the ball heavily at the Bucs front seven. Not only does Black contribute size and speed, but he also plays football with a mean streak. He is physical and hits until the whistle stops blowing.
While Black has good size and speed to help him fight off blocks and chase down ball carriers, his best strength may be his pass coverage. June also excels in pass coverage, and that was a noticeable improvement for the Buccaneers last season when June became the starter at the Sam linebacker. The Bucs got a better season out of their Sam linebacker with June than they had in a number of years with other players.
Black really showed off his pass coverage ability during training camp. He was very active at covering backs and tight ends in his part of the field. He regularly broke passes up and recorded a few interceptions. Black looks like he has the ability to give the Bucs the solid pass defense that they enjoy with June.
Yes, Hayward and McCoy had more tackles than Black in the preseason, but they should have. As already stated, the Mike and Will linebacker have more plays funneled their direction, so Hayward, McCoy, and Black were playing the linebacker position as it is meant to be played.
Overall, Black is the best option for the Buccaneers to put into the starting linebacker corps. He was drafted for this purpose. More importantly, putting Black in at Sam allows June to move to the Will linebacker spot. That is the best option of all the players to go in and play the Will at this time.
It seems to be somewhat of an indictment on Black that the Bucs went to Hayward and McCoy instead of putting in Black and moving June to Will, but that may be due to the fact that the Bucs did not want to shuffle their linebacking corps at two spots in the middle of a game. With a week of preparation time, the best option would be to put Black in at Sam and move June to the Will.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had an interesting comment on the approach of filling in for a linebacker.
"You're philosophy depends on who you have, let's be honest," said Gruden. "If a guy is a real capable player as a backup sometimes you can just plug a guy in. Sometimes you have to move one guy into that position and insert another guy to play the Sam position. Those will be the two things that we weigh. The philosophy is based on what the options are."
Considering the Will is one of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defensive scheme, why wouldn't the Buccaneers want to replace Brooks with a player that has already made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams as a Will linebacker in the Tampa 2? That player would be June.