There was a cautious feeling from Bucs fans heading into this season with the promotion of Barrett Ruud to starting middle linebacker and releasing fan-favorite linebacker Shelton Quarles. Ruud was coming into his third season at the position with only five starts and 66 total tackles. Could the second-round pick out of Nebraska lead this defense and carry on the recent success at the position?
In six games so far this season, Ruud has answered that question with an emphatic ‘yes' and has been a major reason for the success of the defense. Tampa Bay is currently ranked 12th in total defense, including eighth in pass defense. Ruud leads the team with 85 tackles this season along with three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. His current pace has him on track to tie or possibly break the team record of 214 tackles set by former middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who set that record in 1993.
Ruud is an old-school kind of player that is worried more about wins than his statistics, even though the record would be an impressive individual achievement. He had no clue that he even had an opportunity at the record.
"I didn't know that and hopefully I can keep it going," Ruud said. "It's just one week at a time and I try to make as many plays as you can each week."
Ruud has recorded double-digit tackles in five of the first six games of the season and has had 15 or more tackles in four of those games. The only game that he didn't capture double-digit tackles was a 20-7 victory vs. the Carolina Panthers where he had eight tackles.
His best tackling performance this season came in a 13-10 victory vs. the Tennessee Titans last Sunday when he notched 18 tackles, including 12 solo takedowns. Ruud credits his preparation and hustle during practice and game day for his recent success. He's also getting more comfortable with getting the defense and himself in the right position with every game.
"It's just a matter of preparation during the week and then putting in the effort on game day," Ruud said. "You can make at least four or five tackles in a game on hustle alone and that's what I'm trying to do. Don't take any plays off, be on your keys and it's not like I'm counting or anything, but just trying to make as many plays as I can."
Not only playing and learning behind Quarles for his first two seasons, Ruud also has had the opportunity to work beside linebacker Derrick Brooks for his entire career. Brooks has been the perfect role model for Ruud during his career and number 51 is a tremendous complement to Brooks on the field. So it's no coincidence that Ruud and Brooks are 1-2 on the defense in tackles.
Brooks has switched roles in becoming the mentor for Ruud after he had Nickerson beside him in the beginning of his career to mentor him.
"The surprise is over, he's a good player," head coach Jon Gruden said of Ruud. "He just hasn't had a chance to showcase his stuff. He's had to play behind Shelton Quarles who had some great years here. He's doing what he's doing. He's a guy that was taken with the fifth or sixth pick in the second round with that in mind and he's clearly cashing in on his opportunities."
Ruud isn't taking for granted this opportunity to learn from a talented linebacker in Brooks and doesn't hesitate to give the 10-time Pro Bowler some credit for his recent success.
"You are never going to be any worse with Derrick Brooks there, so yeah he helps and he's a big reason why I've been able to improve," Ruud said. "When you get a chance to play with a Hall of Fame player you want to do that."
PITTMAN OUT OF CAST Running back Michael Pittman was seen in the players' locker room on Thursday without the cast on his right leg. Pittman was placed in a hard cast after sustaining ligament damage to his right ankle in a 33-14 loss vs. the Indianapolis Colts. He wasn't walking with any kind of a limp, but still has some pain in the ankle.
"I'm feeling good and it feels about 65-80 percent better right now," Pittman said. "Every day I'm getting better and I'm doing all the right exercises to get me back out on the field."
Pittman believes that if the ankle keeps improving at its current rapid pace that he wants to try and run next week. However, the 6-foot, 228-pound running back is very cautious about coming back too soon.
"I'm not going to be stupid about it and go out there and hurt myself again because I'm doing stuff I shouldn't be doing right now," Pittman said. "If it feels good enough to even starting running next week, I will be running next week so we will see what happens."
The decline in the running game due to the injury to Pittman was evident in last Sunday's 13-10 victory vs. the Titans with running back Earnest Graham rushing for 29 yards on 13 carries. Graham had to carry the entire load of the running game last week without Pittman and running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
Pittman struggled to watch the Titans game because he felt like Graham was overwhelmed with all the pressure of the running game on his shoulders. With that thought, Pittman was happy to see the Bucs bring in a running back like Michael Bennett to supply more depth at the position. Bennett was traded to the Bucs from the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday.
"It helps us big because the more depth you have at running back, the more comforting for the guys that are around you," Pittman said. "Because if something happens you know you have somebody there that has your back. With Mike coming in, I think it took a lot off my shoulders because I felt bad watching Earnest last week. With running backs we feed off each other because if I make a big play then Earnest will want to make a big play."
ADAMS LIMITED IN PRACTICE Tampa Bay rookie defensive end Gaines Adams was limited during Thursday's practice at One Buccaneer Place due to a chest strain he suffered during Wednesday's workout. The Bucs will have a better idea of whether Adams will be able to play vs. Detroit after Friday's practice.
In other injury news, tight end Alex Smith (ankle), defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) missed a second consecutive practice this week. Defensive end Greg Spires (ankle) returned to practice on Thursday.
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