Tampa Bay had high expectations for Jermaine Phillips when it used a fifth-round pick to select him out of Georgia in the 2002 NFL Draft.
In fact, Phillips became a starter when the Bucs released strong safety John Lynch during the 2004 offseason.
But Phillips has had a tough time filling Lynch’s shoes, and understandably so. Lynch was, after all, a five-time Pro Bowler with the Bucs.
Heading into the 2007 regular season, Phillips had started 46 career games, but he had not been to a Pro Bowl. Instead, Phillips lacked playmaking ability, evidenced by his four interceptions in five seasons with the Bucs.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Phillips possessed some of Lynch’s hard-hitting ability, but that aggressive style of play robbed him of some playing time due to injuries he suffered during the 2003, 2004 and 2005 seasons, respectively.
Last year, Tampa Bay’s defense suffered a rash of injuries and failed to rank in the top 10 for the first time in 10 seasons. The defense, Phillips included, struggled to make plays, which in turn impacted the former Bulldog’s play on the field in a negative way.
To make matters worse, Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin had left to take a defensive coordinator job with Minnesota, which led to Tampa Bay’s decision to hire Greg Burns.
Burns never won over the veteran-laden defensive backs room and apparently didn’t do much in terms of helping Phillips correct some of the problems he was having in terms of tackling and making plays on the football field.
The Bucs fired Burns in January and brought back Raheem Morris, who served as an assistant defensive backs coach with Tomlin in Tampa Bay before taking a job as a defensive coordinator with Kansas State in 2006.
Having Morris back has helped Phillips rebound from last year’s disappointing performance. Phillips has been extremely aggressive against the run and in pass coverage. He made two impact plays en route to Tampa Bay’s 24-3 win over St. Louis on Sunday, intercepting Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and knocking wide receiver Isaac Bruce out of the game with a huge hit across the middle of the field.
Phillips is the first to admit that he’s playing with a lot more confidence right now than he was this time last year.
“It’s just having confidence, period,” said Phillips. “Last year I was stressing a little bit and it showed up in my play. This year I’m just taking it one play at a time and I’m just trying to be a good football player.
“I think I definitely have more confidence this year just for the simple fact that last year they said tackling was the issue and we were looking for different ways to fix it. But when I was out there I really didn’t have anybody giving me any direction. Having Raheem Morris back, being the technician that he is, it makes it easier for me.”
Phillips isn’t the only one who is taking notice of his improved play over the first three games of the season.
"He's done a great job through the first three weeks and he has an interception yesterday,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Phillips. “He shows tremendous burst and close on the football. He's made some big hits inside. He's done an excellent job honestly. He's also contributed on special teams. We are getting a lot out of Jermaine as a playmaker and he's been a leader, a veteran presence back their with [free safety] Tanard Jackson. I've been most impressed with Jermaine Phillips so far."
Not only did the Bucs bring back Morris, they added two safeties to the mix via the NFL Draft in April in an effort to add some much-needed competition to the position.
Tampa Bay invested a second-round draft pick in Sabby Piscitelli and a fourth-round selection in Jackson.
Despite the fact that he was making the transition from cornerback to safety, Jackson managed to beat out Will Allen, who also struggled in 2006, for the starting free safety job.
Phillips, however, held off Piscitelli for the starting strong safety spot and has even solidified the position through the first three games of the season.
“Competition always brings out the best in everybody,” said Phillips. “I’m a self-motivated guy. The standards and expectations I have for myself is what drives me.
“What [the Bucs] do doesn’t matter. I just go out there and play. When I came into the league my dream wasn’t to play for the Bucs, it was to play in the NFL. As long as I can do that I’ll continue to do that.”
Phillips has actually embraced a leadership role on Tampa Bay’s defense by taking Piscitelli and Jackson under his wing and showing them the ropes much like the veteran safeties that came before him did when Phillips first entered the league.
“I’m just to the point now where I feel comfortable in saying what I feel and just going out there and trying to get us to play at our best,” Phillips said of his role as a leader. “If I see something that isn’t right I’m not afraid to say something whereas a couple of years ago maybe I would have been.
“Like I told Sabby and T.J., I’m going to try to push you to become the best players you can be because that’s what John Lynch and Dexter Jackson did with me.”
Tampa Bay’s defense has held two potentially potent offenses to a total of 17 points over the past two weeks. As a result, the Bucs, who finished 2006 with a 4-12 record, are off to a 2-1 start and their defense currently ranks 10th overall in the NFL.
The Bucs failed to finish last season ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 10 years. Phillips and the rest of the defense are out to prove that 2006 was the exception, not the norm.
“We’ve raised the standard,” said Phillips. “We’re getting back to the way this defense should be. It’s like the defense of old — we’re hustling and hitting right now. Guys are holding each other accountable and that’s the way it should be. If you continue to do that good things are going to happen.”
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