If there is a bright spot in Tampa Bay’s disappointing 0-3 start this season it has been the play of left tackle Donald Penn. Despite being a member of a Buccaneers offense that generated only 86 yards and five first downs against New York, Penn did his part on Sunday in shutting down the Giants’ premier pass rusher, defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who has 42.5 career sacks in seven years in the NFL.
In fact, Umenyiora was invisible and didn’t even record a tackle due to Penn’s superb blocking.
“Osi is a very good defensive end,” Penn said. “He’s one of the few defensive ends that has an arsenal of moves. He’s not a one-dimensional defensive end. He gave me a few problems, but that happens sometimes. He didn’t get to the quarterback, but he gave me some problems. I can learn from that, though. I can continue to build my game off that. That’s the positive I’m going to take away from playing him.”
Penn’s great individual effort wasn’t nearly enough for Tampa Bay to compete with New York, much less beat the Giants. The Bucs’ fourth-year lineman was shocked at the lack of production on offense.
“It’s very disappointing and very frustrating,” Penn said. “Last Sunday’s game was real tough. We didn’t have a first down the entire half. We went three-and-out, three-and-out and three-and-out. You really can’t figure what’s going on until you get in there and watch film on Monday. It was tough. You try to stay upbeat and positive, but nothing was going our way. We didn’t lose our cool, though. We just have to look at it like a building process and try to get better.
“You always have another game next week, and this week we have Washington. The good thing about us is that we were down in the Dallas game, down in the Buffalo game and down last week, but if you look at the way we played in the fourth quarter we never quit. This team never quits. We’re fighters. That’s a positive for any coach or any player. We were still out there fighting, acting like we could still win the game even though it was out of reach and we couldn’t when [quarterback] Josh Johnson got in the game. We’re going to play until it’s 0:00 on the clock. We have pride. Some teams will shut it down when it gets like that. We won’t.”
Penn knows all about fighting as he has had to fight his way to prominence in the NFL. He entered the league with Minnesota in 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State. General manager Mark Dominik, who was Tampa Bay’s pro personnel director at the time, scouted Penn’s rookie preseason and advised then G.M. Bruce Allen to sign him off the Vikings’ practice squad. The next year, Penn was starting the final 12 games of the 2007 season for the Buccaneers due to Luke Petitgout’s career-ending knee injury, and he has been a rock at left tackle ever since.
Umenyiora was just the latest high-profile defender Penn has neutralized. In Tampa Bay’s Week 1 loss to Dallas, Penn held Pro Bowl rush linebacker DeMarcus Ware to two tackles and without a sack for the second straight year. In 2008 when the Cowboys beat the Buccaneers in Dallas, 13-9, Penn snapped Ware’s consecutive sack streak at 10 games, dating back to the 2007 season. Despite the fact that Penn has shut out Ware, who is his close friend, twice, Ware has gotten the last laugh.
“He’s got all the bragging rights because they got the ‘W’ this year and last year, and that’s what it’s all about,” Penn said.
Individually, Penn has the bragging rights over several of the NFL’s top sack artists. Last year, he held Ware, Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Carolina’s Julius Peppers, Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman and New Orleans’ Will Smith sackless, in addition to keeping Chicago’s Alex Brown away from Brian Griese for all 67 pass attempts in Tampa Bay’s 27-24 Week 3 win at Chicago.
For the second time in four weeks in 2009, Penn will be protecting a brand new Buccaneers quarterback as journeyman Byron Leftwich has been benched after just three starts in favor of Johnson, a second-year signal caller that began training camp as the team’s fourth-string QB.
“This will really be my first time playing with Josh, so I don’t know what to expect yet,” Penn said. “Byron Leftwich is a great quarterback. Raheem said it perfectly when he said that it’s not Byron’s fault that he’s not starting. Byron is a great QB and a great guy. I don’t know what to expect, but I know just from seeing Josh is that he is an exciting player. I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
Johnson will have a lot to be concerned with in starting his first NFL game on the road at Washington this Sunday, but shouldn’t have to worry about pass rushers coming from his blindside with Penn protecting his back due to his consistent, outstanding play dating back to last year.
“That’s the goal of any player – to be consistent,” Penn said. “I’m just taking it day-by-day and trying to get better. This is a big year for me – every year is, really. I’m just trying to do the best I can do. I’ve just been working hard and trying to lead by example. I’m just trying to perform and have the other guys see how I am playing and just come with me.”
Penn has all the motivation to play well this season as he is in a contract year. The Bucs signed Penn to a one-year, $2.97 million contract this past spring after tendering him the highest offer available for a restricted free agent. Penn is one of several NFL players in limbo right now due to the expiration next year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. If the CBA is extended, Penn will become an unrestricted free agent next year. If the CBA is not extended, the Bucs will own his rights through 2011 per the rules set forth under the existing agreement between the NFL and the players union, and Penn will continue to remain a restricted free agent until he has played six years in the league.
Penn hasn’t made his financial demands public, but it would not be unrealistic to expect him to ask for Jason Peters-caliber money. In April, the Eagles traded for the Buffalo left tackle and extended Peters’ contract so that he will essentially be earning $60 million over the next six years.
Peters went to the Pro Bowl last year despite getting whistled for a career-high eight penalties and surrendering 11.5 sacks in 13 games, which was the most sacks allowed in the NFL last year. Penn had his share of penalties and sacks in 2008, but not nearly as many as Peters, who some consider to be one of the NFL’s best left tackles.
Penn is certainly approaching that class if he’s not in it already. It’s a shame he hasn’t gotten more publicity, especially on a national level.
“I want to be one of the best tackles in the league,” Penn said. “I don’t mind flying under the radar, but when it’s all said and done I want to go down as one of the best at my position. That’s my goal. I try to get credit, but at the same time, I’m my own worst critic. I feel I’m one of the best as it is right now.”
With Tampa Bay sitting on $30 million worth of salary cap space, it might be a good idea for Dominik to consider some of that room on a contract extension for Penn, who may be playing the best football of any Buccaneer right now.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com